AN: HOLY CRAP, that's all I have to say, folks. That, and that this story probably took up about a good portion of my life for the last month, I swear, longest drabble turned one shot I have ever written/finished.
Some background on this story: Originally this was going to be entered for a Distant Horizon contest of 100-1000 words (umm, yeah right Beacon) which I realized wouldn't work only after I reached two thousand words and was no where near close to being done. The prompt for the contest was 'Second Glance' but as I continued writing this after I submitted a shorter drabble for the contest ('Three' in WoFaW, if anyone cares) I think it took on a different turn and while it did embrace the concept, I found myself touching lightly into Magical Realism (really, it's there if you squint). I also found I really enjoyed writing about Sokka and Toph as my main characters and putting Zuko and Katara on the back burner for once, as they served as symbols to me more than anything else.
And yes, though I did spend the time I was supposed to be studying for exams on this, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Feedback is always very helpful.
Disclaimer: Avatar is not mine…
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Life wasn't hard once he returned to the South Pole, not exactly. It was certainly a far cry from saving the world, no flying bison, no nights without sleep and the desperation of escape, no thrill of facing impending doom of the comets return. It was nothing like the years after the war, peaceful and gentle, when the whisper of the wind lulled him to sleep at night and the seasons brought about new wonders at every turn. Those were different days; better days. The South Pole was silent, cold and unchanging. Sokka did not need to put on airs for his family and tribe, did not need to think on his feet or fight when sweat dripped into his eyes and burned them. No, life wasn't hard, but it wasn't exactly easy either.
Sokka looked between Zuko and his son, fair skinned, golden eyed and all. Slowly he shook his head. "Whatever you want here, you won't find it."
Zuko regarded him earnestly, "If you would just listen to me for a moment-"
"So you can steal someone else from my life, no thank you Highness, I've had enough of talking with you." He turned on his heel to return within the confines of the village. Zuko might not have been the whitest snowflake in the flurry, but he should at least recognize when he wasn't welcomed.
"Wait." This time, Zuko's tone was sharp and commanding. It held all the authority and power of history of leaders, and the loyal warrior deep inside Sokka could not refuse the command. He stopped in his tracks, but did not turn around. "Come back, Sokka, and talk to me like a man, not as a pouting child."
Sokka did as he was told, though his fixed glare and stiffness showed Zuko just how much he resented the order. "Make it quick, Zuko,"
"He's her son. This is what she would have wanted. Please," As Zuko spoke, his voice lost the tone of a superior and became soft, pleading. "Just for a year. Let him learn of his heritage. I don't want him to forget who he is. Who she was."
Sokka looked down at the young boy, who was staring fixed at the snow. His fine black hair had been pulled into the royal topknot, his skin nearly matched the paleness of their surroundings and his mouth was set in a line that reminded Sokka unpleasantly of a sullen prince of the past.
He looked back at Zuko. "I will take him for a year, at your request. But," he continued before Zuko could thank him, "I see absolutely nothing of her in him," He looked down at the boy, "and I doubt that will change."
"Do you live here by yourself?" The child asked as Sokka held back the flap of his door.
"Yes," Sokka answered curtly and then knelt by a chest and lifted the lid beginning to sort through the skins and blankets inside. There was one on top, very fine, and very warm, but it belonged to someone else. Sokka carefully draped it over the side of the chest as not to rumple it, before he continued his search.
"Don't leader's of villagers usually get married, or at least have servant around?"
"Not here," Sokka snapped close the lid of the chest and thrust a bundle of blankets and jackets into the boy's arms. "Here, you'll find things a little different than your home."
"But, I thought my mom said-"
"That was a long time ago," Sokka ragged suddenly, towering over the boy. "Don't make assumptions."
"I'm sorry," The boy whispered. "I just thought…" He looked meekly up his uncle, golden eyes fearful.
"You can set your bed up over there," Sokka muttered as he waved to a corner of the igloo and then promptly left.
Sokka hardly felt the winter chill as he stormed through the gates of the small village and made for the lookout tower he had built outside of the village after his return. It was not used very often, the village no longer had a need to be wary of foreign ships, but Sokka found it an excellent place to sit and think. He scaled the ladder, and then flopped down against the ice wall.
Rubbing his temples, he groaned softly. How he had managed to get stuck with the brat for a full year he didn't know, but even if he had to keep him, didn't mean he had to like him. He had never even met the boy before, and how Zuko expected him to care for him was beyond Sokka. Maybe the Fire Lord wanted to show his own son what exile felt like, Sokka sneered at thought. He wouldn't put it past Zuko. But a small part of Sokka's mind didn't allow him to believe it. His sister had loved the man, and she would not have left her son with him she thought he would abuse the boy.
Sokka grunted as the boy's question resurfaced in his mind. The least Katara could have done would have been to teach the boy not to pry into business that was not his own. Maybe then, Sokka could forget. Forget for real, not just have the memories wavering in the back his mind, ghost like in a translucent mist, always there.
Sokka remained in the watchtower until sunset, eyes closed against the tidal wave of memories that threatened to over sweep him, knock him over and drown him in past decisions and mistakes. Then, as the artic chill truly set in, as he conquered the memories, Sokka climbed down the ladder and returned to the village.
Katara twirled in the warm sunlight, arms outstretched, face lifted to the sky, a laugh on her lips. Sokka smiled as he watched her; resting beneath a tree, bark biting into his back, but not unpleasantly. Toph lay curled next to him, head resting in the crook of her arm, eyes open but unseeing, and a small smile curling her lips.
"What?" Sokka poked her in the side as she gave another small chuckle.
"Nothing," but her smile broadened, and her eyes narrowed.
"Tell me." he insisted, once again poking her lightly in the ribs, just enough to make her squirm.
"Take a look at Sparky," Toph finally consented, grabbing Sokka's finger, but refusing to let go even after he had stopped trying to tickle her.
Sokka strained to see over to where Zuko lounged, also in the shade but far enough away from the two that he couldn't hear what they were saying. His face was relaxed, eyes lowered as if her were asleep, but there was an alertness in his body, and as Katara, laughing, tumbled down next to him, his body stiffened slightly, and he opened his eyes.
"So what? He's being his usual odd self." Sokka muttered turning back to Toph and giving her a poke with his other hand. "What is there to laugh about?"
"You should feel his heart beat." Toph grinned, this time even wider. "I thought it was beating fast before when her was just watching Katara, but it's doubled at least."
"What does his stupid heartbeat have to do with anything?" Sokka asked, and then pulled his fingers free from Toph's hold, and took her hand in his own, starring at the dirty fingernails and rough skin absently.
"Nothing," Toph whispered as not disturb his reverie.
"What is this?" The boy asked looking nervously at the bowl Sokka handed him.
"Penguin," Sokka answered as he served himself a hunk of meat and flopped back on the cushions he had set up. It was just the two of them, the rest of the village was eating together, and the soft laughter drifted to them from the great fire outside. The boy poked at the meat once or twice, and then opted to pick at the rice underneath. Sokka looked at him again, head cocked to the side, and blue eyes serious.
The boy looked up to meet his gaze and smiled a little. "My mom told me stories,"
"Did she?" Sokka asked casually, gnawing on a rather tough piece.
"Yep, when she used to travel the world with Daddy and a blind girl and the Avatar. You were there too."
"Mom said that she missed you once you came back here."
"You mean once she left for the Fire Nation," Sokka muttered.
"Did you ever miss her?" The boy was playing with his rice, not quite looking at Sokka.
"What's your name?"
"Well, Iroh, if I ever had a daughter, her name would be Katara." Sokka's voice was chilling, and left no room for further conversation. Iroh looked at him, eyes wide, concerned, and then put down his bowl.
"I'm done, thank you." He said softly, and then rose to step outside.
"Don't wander off," Sokka called after him, and then ate the food Iroh had left in his bowl.
Feeling full, and slightly sleepy, Sokka pulled out his own sleeping blankets and laid them out next to the door. After waiting another ten minutes, Sokka ducked out of his home to look for Iroh; the boy couldn't have gone far or maybe he took after his father, most likely Sokka thought with a snort, and had wandered off only to get in trouble.
But Iroh hadn't gone far at all; he sat just outside the entrance to the igloo, legs pulled to his chest, chin resting on his knees, his eyes closed. Sokka slid down to sit next to him.
"Are you okay?" He asked gruffly.
"Yeah," Iroh said in a small voice. "I miss my mom,"
Sokka looked at the young boy and then put a tentative hand on his shoulder. "Me too,"
"Can you, can you tell me a bit about her?" Iroh asked after a moment, his voice rasping with unshed tears. "She died before I ever got to know her," he rubbed his nose on his knee. "All I have of her is her stories."
"Then you have the best part. She was happy when we traveled."
"Can't you tell me anything?"
"No." Sokka rose, and then helped his nephew up. "You'll freeze soon, come inside."
The ship arrived in the port the day before they were scheduled to depart. When Sokka saw it, he whooped with joy and went to find his sister. He skipped half the way there, shaking stranger's hands and singing a song he alone knew.
"Katara!" He called up the stairs, before he practically flew up them. "Katara, we're going home!" He sang and burst through the door of their room.
Katara looked up from where she knelt on the floor, packing up the last of her bag. Zuko lounged in the corner of the room; a curious expression sprawling across his usually closed off face. Sokka paused mid step, sensing sudden tension that filled the room.
"What?" he asked carefully. Katara didn't reply for a moment, just pulled the strings tight on her bag and knotted them. Zuko looked at her and then down at his hands. "What?" Sokka repeated, a little more insistently.
"You haven't told him yet?" Zuko glanced at Katara; worry etching over his face. "I thought you were going to."
"I was, I just didn't find the time," Katara bit her lip as she exchanged a nervous look with Zuko.
"Tell me what?" Sokka felt his voice rising plaintively. It should have sounded manly and authoritative but at the moment, Sokka didn't care.
"I'm not going home with you," Katara stated carefully, trying to gauge his reaction.
"Well you're certainly not staying here, don't be ridiculous Katara," Sokka snorted.
"No Sokka, I'm serious." She said gently. "And I'm not being ridiculous either. I won't be leaving with you."
"Where will you then, tell me that Katara?" Sokka asked stiffly. "I know we all said we would be going our separate ways, but that meant home. That meant going back to family, and your family is in the South."
"I know what we said, but circumstances have changed."
"By that you mean?"
Katara hesitated barely a second to glance at Zuko, but Sokka understood even before Katara opened her mouth. His stomach dropped. "Zuko and I have been talking," Katara started. "The last few days were tense between us…" Sokka remembered, but he had thought the silence and the quiet bickering was an improvement from the explosive fights the two sometimes launched into. "…and when we sat down to talk about it, we both realized something." Katara took a breath. "Zuko and I have realized there is something between us. Neither of us is quite sure what it is or where it could go, but we both think it's worth figuring."
"So this means…"
"Yes. For the time being, I'll be returning to the Fire Nation. Who knows what will happen, but it's better than never knowing."
"Can't you just come home and have these thoughts and feelings there? Figure out whatever it is between you apart, so if it turns out to be hate, you two won't kill each other," Sokka joked feebly. Katara shook her head.
"What about GranGran? Katara, I thought you wanted to see her."
"I do, Sokka, but it just isn't going to work right now."
"What? So you're just going to run off with this upstart prince? He was fine as an ally for the war, but that was three years ago. Katara, it'll never work between you two. The Fire Nation is unstable now, and putting an ex-banished prince in power is dangerous enough without you're involvement with him. As your big brother, I forbid you to go." Sokka spat. He wasn't going to lose Katara now, he had traveled all around the world to keep her safe, and now, when he had finally thought he could relax, she was running right back into conflict.
"I understand how you feel," Zuko spoke up for the first time. "Katara is important to you, she's your family and you don't want her to lose her. I promise you that no harm will come to her. I care for Katara, and I'll look after her."
"Like you can even look after yourself." Sokka sneered.
"Sokka, there's no need to be rude," Katara snapped.
"It's alright, he's angry,"
"I didn't ask for your help, I can stand up to my own sister," Sokka growled. "Katara, come on, we'll stay somewhere else tonight." Sokka glared at Zuko and bent to pick up Katara's bag, but she stopped him.
"No, Sokka. I'm staying with Zuko." Her tone was flat and cool, leaving absolutely no room for argument. Sokka stared at her three, four, five seconds and then straightened up.
"I'm sorry, Sokka. I love you, I really do. I just can't stay with you for the rest of my life. I'll come back to visit, and you can come to see me," Katara reached up to place a hand on Sokka's clenched fists. "Just because I'm not with you doesn't mean I won't think about you," He pulled away from her abruptly.
"Don't waste your breath with apologies and excuses Katara," Sokka growled, "As long as you defy your family, as long as you put yourself in needless danger, you don't have a brother. You don't belong in the South Pole either, it's a good thing you're not coming back."
Sokka listened to himself spit the words out, watched as a shocked and then hurt expression spread over Katara's face.
"Sokka, you don't mean that," she whispered.
"I do," he heard himself say again, "As far as I'm concerned, I no longer have a sister," and then felt his body turn and storm out of the room. He tried to stop, he really did, but one look at Katara's crumpled expression kept him moving forward, out of the room and out of his sister's life.
All the same, Sokka missed his ship.
The days past slowly in the artic, Iroh was for the most part silent, helping Sokka work on whatever needed to be done. He did not see much of the other villagers, for Sokka avoided them too, only to smile at some of the children and lead the men hunting. The days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, and slowly, Iroh started to adapt to his new home.
Sokka often caught him watching the other children his age playing in the snow; a few of them water benders.
"Go and play, if you want," Sokka finally said one afternoon after watching Iroh distract himself from skinning a seal three times in a row. "I can take care of the seal myself."
"No, it's alright. I like working with you, Sokka." Iroh had stopped calling him 'uncle' the second time Sokka glared at him. Personally, Sokka didn't believe he quite fit the role of uncle. "Guardian for a year", or "foreman", or even "slave driver" might have been more suitable, but Iroh never complained about the work, he even seemed to enjoy it. He didn't seem to resent Sokka either: his only request came at night he when pushed Sokka to tell him stories. When he did get Sokka to tell him a short adventure, it was a rare occasion. However, if he had resentments about the working or lack of stories, he did not show them.
"I know you do, but you haven't even met the other kids your age. Go on," Sokka urged.
Iroh bit his lip, looking down at the dead seal, and Sokka blinked. Black hair, golden eyes, pale skin, they were all still there, but for a moment, Katara had been crouching where Iroh was, a nervous child, still unsure if other children would accept her. "What if they don't like me?"
"Of course they'll like you. Don't be ridiculous. Go play before I have to walk you over there myself." His mother's words echoed in him, and Sokka closed his eyes, pushing both Katara and her from his mind.
Iroh stood, stuck his chin out, took a deep breath and then swaggered self confidently over to the children. Sokka shook his head. All his father's son.
Sokka got the invitation to the wedding, but he didn't go. He didn't want to see Katara adorned in red, or Zuko with that look of pure, unadulterated happiness that made Sokka want to tear his head off. He didn't want to see their friends, he didn't want to see anyone, and he told Toph so.
"I just don't see the point," he muttered, tearing the invitation in half with a slow deliberation. "I haven't talked to Katara since she left for the Fire Nation, and don't plan to until she comes to her senses and leaves that jerk."
"I think," Toph remarked, "that you should go."
"Why? So my sister and gloat on having won our fight and that she was right and I was wrong, and now she's going to be ridiculously happy and have the life she always dreamed of? Thanks, but no." He flopped backward onto the wooden porch. "I can imagine the frills and giggles perfectly well from here."
"She is your sister," Toph said carefully. "No matter how many times you claim you've disowned her, I know you still love her."
"Not a chance," Sokka muttered obstinately. "She means nothing to me,"
"I miss her," Toph stated, nudging Sokka's leg.
"You go if you want,"
"Not unless you do, I said I would stay with you."
"Yeah, well, I never made you." Sokka growled and rolled on his side so he wouldn't see the cloud cover Toph's gentle features.
"Hey, I never said you did." She sat up suddenly and leaned over Sokka's side. "I'm staying with you because that is my choice." Her tone was gentle, soothing and Sokka closed his eyes as she brushed a hand over his cheek. "I'm staying with you because I love you, no matter how angry that makes my parents. That reason outweighs everything else, everybody else. Even though I know it kills my family, I'm not going to leave you, because that would kill me."
Sokka rolled back to face Toph, the motion causing her to collapse on his chest. His blue eyes searched her face, and then he gently guided her lips to his own. "I love you," he sighed, tucking her head under his chin, and inhaling her subtle scent.
"Will you go to Katara's wedding, then?"
"No," he chuckled. They were silent for a moment and then, "But I'll take you to another wedding," he tossed out casually. Toph was silent.
"Your heart is like a little rabbit right now," She whispered, sitting up. "What wedding would that be?"
"I don't know, I was thinking… ours, maybe?" Sokka looked up at the sky, unable to look at Toph. "Would you go with me if I asked you to?"
"If that's an invitation, then yes," and then Toph was laughing, "Yes, I would love to accompany you to that wedding."
Iroh had made a friend, a small, quiet girl. Sokka knew her, she was some distant cousin of his own: thrice removed possibly, but he had not seen her often. She mostly clung to her mother or her older sister, carried a carved polar seal with her at all times and retained a pathological fear of the village leader. Iroh, to Sokka's complete astonishment, had managed to tease her away from her family long enough to carve the polar seal a friend in the form of a turtle duck. Hakana had sat wide-eyed for hours to watch the creation form under Iroh's knife and fingers: as he told her of his home many miles away.
The next day, the polar seal had been left wrapped in canvas in front of Sokka's igloo, along with two blue beads and a hardened piece of candy. Sokka had watched as Iroh stared with wonder at the gifts before giving him a sheepish smile and setting the aside.
"What are we working on today?" He had asked shyly, but Sokka snorted.
"I think your little friend would be upset if she thought her gifts weren't appreciated, go find her and thank her."
Iroh had beamed and then, to Sokka's even greater astonishment, given him a hug around the waist and dashed out in the freezing cold.
Hakana's acceptance of the strange boy seemed to have provoked the rest of the children's interest, and soon enough Iroh became the center of attention. He competed in contests with other boys his age, was invited to lunch with girls and their families and soon enough some of the elders had taken him in to teach him lessons all the other boys had learned when they were simple toddlers. Through everything, Hakana hung to Iroh's arm like an Elbow Leech, grinning toothily and giggling and blushing when Iroh smiled or spoke to her.
"She really does hero worship you," Sokka remarked one evening, blanket pulled over his shoulders as he chewed on seal jerky. "I don't know what you did, but she smiled at me the other day instead of squealing and running in the other direction."
Iroh shrugged. "I'm just nice to her, she's so small she must not get noticed a lot, it used be the same for me."
"Oh? I can't imagine that," Sokka cocked his head to the side as he took in his nephew. "You don't seem small for your age."
"I'm not anymore," Iroh laughed, stealing a bit of Sokka's jerky, "but I used to be. After my Mom died, I think I shrank. Everyone was still kind and polite to me, but it was more because I was royalty than who I really was. Dad was still there of course, but I was something special to my mom." Iroh smiled a little, the edge of his mouth quirking in a sad sort of way, and Sokka looked down at his hands.
"Yeah, she was like that with everyone we ever met," he started slowly, "she loved everybody, her heart bled even for the least deserving. I don't think she could ever truly hate anybody, even your father…"
"My father?" Iroh asked. "When did my mom hate him?"
"For a long while, I think. He scared her when they were younger. There was some kidnapping and betrayal on both sides and some nasty words exchanged, but in the end, I suppose it was just flirting." Sokka shook his head.
Iroh smiled again. "I wish I could have seen her when she was my age."
Sokka studied Iroh for a moment and then smiled for real. "Strong, brave, already a mother to me and the rest of us. I always thought she'd have a girl when she actually went about having children. Someone who took after her."
Iroh's smile slowly faded from his face. "So, I'm not much like her than, am I? Is that why my father sent me, to see if I could get in tough with Katara through my extended family? But I haven't changed at all; I'm still just Iroh. I'm still all fire and no water."
"Maybe," Sokka chose his words carefully, "maybe it's good that you're not like her. Maybe it's best you are who you are instead of just being your mother. I think a heir to the throne that looked foreign would not be well received just at this moment."
"I just wish there was a part of me I could attribute to her, you know? So I could do something great, and then say, 'see I can do that too, I'm your son,' and where ever she is she would know it was me."
"It's late Iroh, we should sleep."
Aang landed with a soft thump in the grass outside the quaint home, his glider closing behind him. Toph looked up from the porch and smiled in his general direction. "Well, if it isn't Mr. Twinkle Toes himself. Glad you can take time away from your all important Avatar duty to grace us humble folk with your presence."
Aang laughed as he bent to kiss her cheek. "It's nice to see you too, Toph. How long has it been, three years, four now? Congratulations on your marriage, I know I sent the messenger hawk, but from my manner lessons, I think I remember it always means more to say it in person." Toph laughed, "Sokka isn't here, is he?"
On cue, the door slid open and Sokka grinned down at the young Avatar. "Aang, we weren't expecting you. You had a safe journey I hope? I don't see Appa anywhere." Sokka noticed, looking around for the large flying beast.
"I left him behind this time, he's getting old, and I thought it would be kinder to fly than have him carry me half way around the world again. Nice stubble by the way,"
Sokka rubbed his chin self consciously, but grinned all the same. "I see yours hasn't grown in yet."
"Eh, I'm a monk, sorta. We have no need for facial hair." He said airily.
Toph snorted. "It's great to have you here, Aang, can we get you anything?"
"No, no just sit." Aang reassured her as he sat himself, leaning against a pillar. "Before I forget, I have a gift for you."
Digging into his satchel, he pulled out a carefully folded blanket and handed it to Toph. "It's a late wedding gift,"
"You already gave us something," Sokka reminded him as he settled down next to Toph, cradling her against his chest. "We can't accept anymore, otherwise when you finally settle down we'll go broke trying to repay you." He grinned as Toph pinched his arm.
"This isn't from me, exactly." Aang started a little uncomfortably. "I stopped in the Fire Nation on my way here."
"Oh," Sokka said, and then said it again because he couldn't think of anything else to say. Sokka hadn't sent Katara anything for her wedding; he hadn't even let her know he and Toph were married.
"Katara said to give you her best wishes, and she hopes this keeps you warm." Aang hesitated. "She also says she would like her son to know his uncle and aunt, if they are ever willing to meet him."
Toph smoothed her hands for the red material a few times, eyes closed. "I didn't know…"
"I didn't either," Aang reassured her. "I think after none of us attended the wedding…"
"You didn't go either?"
Aang lowered his grey eyes. "I had business in the East," which Sokka translated as Aang had felt it necessary to head in the opposite direction as soon as he had found out. "I thought you two surely would have gone."
"I wasn't quite ready to see her," which Aang translated as Sokka was still angry.
"Did Zuko say anything?" Toph asked.
"Only that he almost misses Sokka's humor and he certainly misses your sarcasm."
"What does the baby look like?"
"Pale, golden eyes, black hair,"
"Oh," seemed to be the phrase of the hour, so Sokka used it once more.
"You two aren't expecting, are you?" Aang asked, a small glint in his eye. Toph rolled her eyes and nudged his foot.
"Not yet," Sokka replied, thumbing Toph's arm gently, "But we're hoping soon,"
"You two probably want to catch up like 'real' men," Toph said after a few moments of comfortable silence. "Sokka why don't you take Aang into town, I'm sure he would like it."
Sokka nodded in agreement, and then slid out away from Toph. "Good idea, we'll be back before it gets too late." He cupped her face and gave her a lingering kiss before straightening fully and joining Aang.
"She looks good," Aang said after they were out of sight of the house. "Older though, it's weird to see her looking like an adult."
"I could say the same for you, you're certainly not the same boy Katara pulled from the iceberg."
Aang shrugged. "Everybody changes, for better or worse, I suppose."
"Have you been alright?" Sokka pressed. "You all but disappeared from our world again, and you look tired. Too tired."
"I'm fine, it's just exhausting being the Avatar, you know? Even more so after the war: there's evil through out the whole world now, not just in a concentrated area." Aang sighed. "I've started to think peace is a lot more complicated than war."
Sokka frowned. "That sounds rather cynical coming from you,"
Aang laughed softly. "I know, I'm sorry."
"We'll go in here," Sokka nodded to a small bar on one of the side streets. "It's quiet, and it'll give us the privacy to talk." Aang nodded and followed him in, falling into the chair across from Sokka at the table he had picked.
"So I take it," Aang started, smiling a little at the girl who brought them their drink, "that you haven't seen Katara since that day she left,"
Sokka shook his head. "Not once,"
"Are you sure that's wise?" Aang asked. Sokka watched as the grey eyes followed the pretty serving girl, a hollowness resonating in them. Sokka wondered if Aang had even spoken to a girl since Katara had left him. "If you're not careful, you could regret your decision."
"I doubt it, Katara doesn't have to heart to never see me again. If she chooses to come find me, I'll see her. If she leaves it up to me to close the rift, it won't happen. In all honesty, she has always been the stronger of us two, she can afford to give in to find me, I can't: I'm not that strong."
"What if she doesn't know?" Aang asked, "What if she thinks you'll turn her away?"
"She knows," Sokka reassured himself more than Aang. "Of course she knows, she's my sister, she has to,"
There was to be a festival. The moon festival was one that Sokka had mixed feelings about, he adored the food and the dancing, the old storytelling and the enactments of old legends, and yet at the same time, he hated it. Every time he pledged his allegiance to the moon, mother of his tribe, he remember Yue; her gentle voice, sad eyes and total selflessness. He felt guilty thinking about her, missing her, promising to never stray from her guidance and love, when all the time it was someone else he longed to say the words to.
Iroh seemed to have noticed his moodiness as the festival drew closer, ducking quickly out of the way whenever Sokka drew near and going about his work as carefully as possible. He wasn't afraid of Sokka, but the biting tongue and sigh of resignation whenever Iroh asked him for help were slightly off putting.
Sokka was glad for the solitude he found in the days leading up to the festival. It gave him time to think and reflect on the past year, check in on how the tribe was doing and see what needed improvement for the future. He was good at that sort of thing, and enjoyed peace that accompanied the drawing out of plans and writing down new ideas.
The sun shone lazily through the window and Sokka paused in his scribbling, massaging his wrist to sooth the cramping of over an hour of writing. Off in the distance, he could hear the rest of the village preparing for the festival; food being fried, children giggling as they were taught old chants, hunting parties going off to catch more meat.
"…Never celebrated the Moon Festival before, you'll have to tell me all about it." Sokka cocked his head as he recognized Iroh's voice and the Hakana's giggling.
"Really? You've never had moon cakes?" Hakana asked in amazement, "they're the best food in the whole wide world!"
"What are they?" Iroh asked, just outside the window now, and gave a small grunt, dropping wood on the pile.
"Really sweet, and yummy. Mommy says I can't have too many, or else I'll get sick. You can have my extra ones."
"Thank you, that's very kind."
Sokka leaned back, resting his head against the wall as he listened to the two talk. There was a crunch of snow and then a soft 'oof' as Hakana had leapt onto Iroh after he sat down outside.
"In the Fire Nation, we have the Sun Festival, we get special cakes then too, except they are spicy instead of sweet."
Sokka could imagine Hakana's nose wrinkling. "I don't really like spicy foods."
"My mom didn't either, she always passed them to me under the table, I always ate too many back then and got sick too."
Hakana giggled again. "Will you dance with me at the festival?"
"Uh-huh, and then there's a big fire and everyone stands around it and gets warm. My mom says she married my dad because he danced with her at the festival."
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at dancing."
"I'm not very good at dancing,"
"So? If you never practice you'll never learn."
"Well, I haven't practiced, I haven't learnt so I certainly won't dance with you."
"But it's a royal ball in celebration of you, you have to dance."
"Then I'll dance with a prettier girl than you,"
"I'd be hurt if I thought you meant that…"
Sokka closed his eyes and shook his head.
"I mean it, I won't dance with you."
"Sokka, Zuko is being mean, make him dance with me." Pouting blue eyes, a playful smile and Sokka rolled his own.
"Dance with my sister, if only to shut her up." A grudging sigh, but then a gentle, guiding hand, a sweep, a dip, and bow, a smile. Sokka wondered if he had ever seen Katara smile so brightly.
"Doesn't matter," Hakana sighed, "I'll teach you."
"Does my uncle dance?" Iroh asked with interest.
"No, mommy says he can barely sit through the festival as it is,"
"No, not really." A soft sigh, "Sokka is not how I imagined him. In my mother's stories, he was always bright and cheerful, funny. He is very…"
"Scary." Hakana whispered. "My mother said the world was cruel to him."
"There are so many things… but I suppose I'm not supposed to know," A pause. "Come on Hakana, let's finish gathering the wood, Sokka would like that,"
Trudging footsteps and the voices faded. Sokka looked down at his hands, he felt numb, slow, like he had not felt for years. He knew he was distant from his village, he knew that he could, should care more for the people who had loved and adored above all others when he had been a boy. But as hard as he tried, he could not stir himself to reach out and get to know them. His heart was dead, had died long ago, it simply sat in his chest: a cold, lead lump that weighed him down.
Sokka looked over Aang's grave features and then turned his back on the younger man. He didn't want to know.
"Toph said she would be home by now. You didn't see her, did you?"
"Sokka," Aang said gently, reaching out to place a hand on his old friend's shoulder.
Sokka shrugged him off as casually as possible. "I was thinking that pork would be good for dinner, you like pork, don't you Aang?"
"I don't eat meat, Sokka."
"Right, how silly of me, I forgot." Sokka laughed a little nervously and then brushed past Aang to step out on the porch.
Aang bowed his head. "Sokka, please."
"It's beautiful here, isn't it? A lot warmer than the South Pole but not as hot as the Fire Nation. I always thought Katara would like it here, when she came back."
"The air," Sokka rushed. "It's clean, pure, not at all smoggy."
"Sokka stop it!" Aang shouted, and then buried his face in his hands. "You're not making this any easier for me."
"Then don't tell me," Sokka pleaded. "I don't like bad news, you know that Aang."
"I can't spare you from this," Aang whispered. "You know I would if I could."
Sokka stared at him for a long moment and then sank to his knees slowly on the porch.
"Died in her sleep
peacefully. Zuko said…" Aang's voice cracked, and Sokka heard
him fight back tears when he spoke next. "Zuko said she hadn't
been feeling well the night before, but had been just as…"
"Just as bright and beautiful." Sokka finished wearily. Aang nodded behind him.
"Her son is only five,"
"And he still…"
"Looks just like Zuko."
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Sokka whispered. "When we were little and our mom was still alive, we used to plan out our futures. She and I would live in houses next door to each other, and our children run between the houses all the time. She said she would learn to make the stew we loved so much and bring me some everyday." Sokka buried his head in his hands. "We weren't supposed to fight, we weren't supposed to never speak to each other again." The tears began to flow, but Sokka didn't try to stop them.
"I never told her I was sorry, never got to say congratulations on her marriage, or share her joy or see her hold her baby. I'm her brother damn it!"
Aang pressed his lips together as he knelt next to Sokka. "I know." He told him softly. "But she knew, she knew you loved her, she knew everything." Sokka stuck the hand away that Aang offered.
The Avatar sat back sadly. "I'm afraid I have more news."
"What else could you possibly have to tell me?"
"I visited the South Pole recently. Hakota has passed away. They need a new leader."
"How does that concern me?"
"He's your father, for one thing." Aang said a little stiffly. "And the village wished me to tell you they await your hastened return."
Sokka looked up at Aang, and the Avatar felt his heart pang. It was not the brave warrior he knew so well who knelt before him, but a small child, suddenly all alone in the world for the first time, unsure of the duties that suddenly fell upon him. "They want you to be their next chief."
"But Toph, this house, this life I have. I can't just…"
"There is no other option. The elders tell me you were prepped from a young age. Taught the old legends and customs. You are the rightful heir."
"What if I don't want to be?"
Aang sighed and then offered Sokka a sad smile. "I'm afraid that doesn't matter. Without a chief, your tribe will fall apart. They add to the balance in the world and as the Avatar, I can't let them crash."
Toph returned shortly after Aang left for the night: whistling happily and kicking up dust with her bare feet. Sokka saw her coming but couldn't bring himself to move or even greet her. His wife paused when she reached the porch and cocked her head to the side.
"Sokka?" she asked carefully and then clambered up on the porch to sit next to him. "Are you alright?" She reached out to touch his face, but he intercepted her hand and simply held it in his own.
"Aang came today. He brought news with him."
"Katara's dead." He heard Toph's soft intake of breath and smiled a little.
"Sokka," she whispered. "I'm so sorry." She brought his hand to her face and gently kissed his knuckles. "I know what this must be like for you,"
"Do you?" Sokka suddenly growled. "How? Katara wasn't your sister, you didn't say all those things I did to her, you didn't refuse to see her, did you?"
"No! Exactly. You never hurt Katara the way I did, you never pushed her away or abandoned her, so how could you possibly understand?" Sokka roared, sorrow and rage blinding him, heating his face.
God, he was burning up; his head was pounding, heart beating erratically, he was hot, too hot…then cool fingers pressed against his face, soft lips followed, kissing his forehead and then cheek. The heat subsided, the rage burned out and he was left with a hollow grief in his chest. Arms encircled his head and Sokka found Toph's petite frame and pulled her closer.
"Maybe I don't understand." She comforted gently, "but I feel it too. You're not alone, Sokka." Her fingers stroked over his head, tangling in his hair and loosening it from his wolf tail.
"I'm sorry," He whispered into her shoulder.
"No, you don't. Toph, I can't stay here." Sokka mouthed against the soft fabric.
"What?" She drew back a little. "What are you talking about Sokka?"
"The chief of my tribe in the South passed away. I'm the next in line. I need to go back."
"That's not so bad. I've wanted to see the South. We could make a tribute for Katara, a watch tower or something."
"Toph, you can't come."
The young earth bender paused. "Why not?"
"The South Pole is not the place for you," Sokka told her gently. "You wouldn't be able to see down there, and if you tried, your feet would freeze."
"I don't care," Toph whispered. "That doesn't matter."
"Yes it does."
"No, Sokka, it doesn't." Toph snapped. "I don't mind being blind if I can stay with you. Lots of people are truly blind and they survive just fine."
"You aren't 'lots of people,' Toph. You would be miserable without your sight." Sokka reasoned, but she shook her head.
"I wouldn't matter. I would be with you, I could touch you, hear you, smell you. That alone would make me happy."
"You may be willing to give up your sight, but I'm not willing to let you make that sacrifice." Sokka said firmly.
"This is not your decision."
"Yes it is. You are my wife and I am responsible for your wellbeing. You will listen to what I say."
"No I will not!" Toph shouted. "You can't tell me what to do, you never have and you never will." She raged. "I would follow you to the ends of the earth, I have! A climate change can't stop me."
"I'm doing this for you," Sokka snapped. "I want what's best for you."
"What's best for me? You call breaking my heart good for me?"
"Better a dead heart than a dead body." Sokka said coolly and then stood.
"Where are you going?" Toph growled.
"For… a walk." Sokka muttered and then clipped down the steps and started off across the field.
The house was dark when he returned, but when he pulled open the door, he found Toph waiting for him in the middle of the room.
"When you go, I want you to take Katara's blanket."
"No," Sokka whispered. "That's for you."
"And I'm giving it to you," she snapped, and then caught herself. "It's the only thing I can give you to remember me. The only thing you'll allow."
"Toph… I would never… Always." He breathed into her ear. "I will always remember you."
"When do you leave?" She asked softly.
Sokka walked across the space between them and knelt behind her; pulling her into his arms. "Tomorrow."
A soft sob broke from Toph's throat and she twisted his grasp to wrap her arms around his neck. "We said we'd always be together."
"I know," Sokka breathed in the gentle scent of her hair. "I thought we would be."
Toph pulled back slightly, hands reaching up to trace his face. "I will wait for you."
"I don't know if I'll ever come back," Sokka whispered against her fingertips.
"I don't care. There's no one else I would go to."
Sokka smiled faintly. "I love you," then he kissed her.
Sokka left the tent earlier than he had planned. The festival didn't start until after sunset, but Sokka needed the time to think. He waved to Iroh, who grinned and waved back, as he headed toward the village gates. There had only ever been one place where he could think properly.
Sokka walked briskly toward the tower but paused when he reached the bottom. When he had first come to the village he used to spend every evening looking out across the water, searching for a ship, for the land he had left behind to return to the frozen ice caps. His thoughts used to wander back to Toph, her smile, her laugh, to Katara, her blue eyes and livelihood until it all became too painful and he shut it out.
He had pushed the memories away, pushed away the pain in his chest until it no longer haunted him. Until he felt nothing. Sokka leaned forward to rest his forehead against the ice.
Maybe, Sokka thought, maybe he had shut out too much. Yes the memories hurt, but without them he was nothing. He no longer knew how to laugh, or to smile, how to joke or to connect people. He no longer felt sadness or pain, he just existed. An empty shell.
Was this what Toph meant? Sokka felt his eyes begin to close in an attempt to will away memories, an action that had become second nature. He stopped himself, keeping his eyes open and relaxing his mind. He was tired of being numb. He wanted to feel again, he wanted to live. He owed that to Katara, to Iroh, to Toph.
Slowly, the memories began trickled through his brain, hesitantly first and then quickly. Sokka grit his teeth; they hurt, all of them. He didn't want to feel these things again, the regret, sorrow, anger, pain. But then he saw Katara's face full of joy as she looked at Zuko, and Toph blushing happily as he carried her into their home for the first time as a married couple, and it was worth it.
The memories continued to flow; flickering images of the past Sokka had tried for so long to block out, and though the sharp stabs emotion didn't lessen, he started to feel a sort if peace begin spread over him. It was… different. He didn't feel as empty or as cold as he had for the last eight years. Shuddering, Sokka sank to his knees, sucking in deep breathes of air as the flow finally began to stop. It hurt, yes, all the old feelings coming back almost ten fold, but it was right. This is what he had needed, not to push away the memories but to embrace them; to let them envelop him.
Sokka crouched by the tower for another long moment as he caught his breath and then he pushed himself back up and turned around. A gust of wind off the sea caught him and as Sokka inhaled he remembered Katara. The two of the scrambling over drifts of snow as children, making promises by the fire at night, the whip of her water bending, all of it so strong that Sokka went reeling backward, assaulted by the images. The salt air played over his face and whispered in his ear, and on it he heard a voice he had long ignored and then forgotten.
I forgive you the wind moaned I love you and then she was there.
The festival was in full swing by the time Sokka returned to the village, feeling more alive than he had in years. The women smiled at him and the men raised their mugs in greeting and Sokka responded in like, thumping the men on their backs and leaning to kiss the women on the cheek.
The moon was high in the sky when he found Iroh sitting up on one of the high walls, surveying the festival. Beside him Hakana was curled, a snow flower tucked behind her ear. "Hey Iroh, hey Hakana." Sokka greeted as he flopped down beside him, Hakana glanced at him shyly and then did a double take.
"You look different," She accused and wrinkled her nose. "You're not really that scary, you know." She announced boldly and then swung down from the wall.
Iroh smiled gently as he watched her go and then looked up at the stars shinning splendidly above them. "You all right?" he asked after a moment.
"No, but I'm getting better," Sokka said softly and glanced at Iroh who had not yet pulled his gaze from the sky. How he had not noticed it before, Sokka didn't know, but at that moment, Katara looked out from Iroh's eyes. Every expression that flitted across his face, every lopsided smile, every soft word, it was all Katara. Zuko may have claimed every physical aspect of his son, but the emotions and characteristics belonged completely to Sokka's sister.
" I'm sorry," he said after a moment.
"For lots of things, I think," Sokka started. "I haven't exactly been the best uncle I could have been. I haven't been around for you the past year. I judged you before I met you. I refused to accept you. In all honesty, I'm a terrible human being."
"No, you're just human. She told me what you went through after my mom died, and before. Maybe in the future, I can come back to visit and we can start over. I love you Sokka because you're my family, but I want to love you for who you are."
"That's what I'm most sorry for," Sokka sighed. "I never should have said you were nothing like Katara. If you ever want to know what your mom was like, just look at yourself."
Iroh looked at him disbelievingly for a moment and then a slow grin spread over his face. "If I could, I'd like to come back again in a few years."
"You'll always be welcome."
"Thank you, Uncle."
For the first time in nearly eight years, Sokka thought he felt his heart beat.
And it was only later; after the festival had ended and Iroh lay curled in his corner of the igloo, that Sokka caught what he had missed.
The trees were exactly the same as he remembered them, the small, sweet town that he had grown to love, the winding dirt road that led out of it; he knew them all. He knew them, but it was as if he were visiting them in a dream. He had long given up hope he would return to them, thought he would remain forever in his freezing homeland, that now that he was actually here, he couldn't quite believe it.
But Iroh skipped ahead of them, and Zuko walked to his right, and Sokka knew it was real. "It's very odd being back." He confessed to Zuko under his breath.
"I'm sure," Zuko smiled gently at him, "but you'll have time to get used to it, your whole life in fact."
"Maybe," Sokka agreed, an answering smile stretching his lips. "Do you still miss her?" he asked after a moment. "I mean of course of you do, but, you know…"
"Yeah," Zuko laughed softly. "I do. I think about her everyday."
"How can you live
with it, all the pain? I tried, but it became too much that after a
"You locked it away, I know, I came close to doing that myself." Zuko confessed. "But I have the good memories, I have her smiling face and her laughter and her bravery. And Iroh. He's what keeps me going most days." Sokka glanced at him and then smiled.
"You have a lot more in you than I gave you credit for."
Zuko gave a barking laugh. "That's what Katara said, I think after the first time I cooked dinner for our group."
Sokka grinned. "It sucked." He helpfully reminded,
"Was better than yours," Zuko muttered and then grinned too. "Yeah, it did, though, didn't it?"
"Hurry up!" Iroh called, skittering around ahead of them. "We're almost there,"
Sokka didn't have to be told that, his feet knew, and unconsciously he sped up.
She was waiting on the porch, as if she had known they would be coming, and maybe she did, but when he saw her, he didn't care.
Time had not changed Toph, she looked as she always had; hair pulled back from her face, cocksure smile, petite form curled into a comfortable sitting position. She tipped her head to side as if she were listening, and then she turned blindly toward Sokka.
"Well," she said as if eight years hadn't happened. "I was wondering when you'd be home." She held out her hand, and Sokka tripped over himself in his fervor to get to her.
"I'm sorry," he whispered into her hand. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry,"
Toph stroked his cheek and then smiled over his hunched form at Zuko and Iroh. Zuko smiled at her in return and then turned, taking his son by the hand and departed for his ship.
"I shouldn't have left you," Sokka murmured. "It was the biggest mistake of my life."
Toph made a small noise in her throat as she ran her hands over his shoulders. "You were trying to protect me."
"I should have listened to you." He raised his eyes, blue and beseeching up at her. "Who was I to deny you what you wanted. If I'm lucky enough to have you want to give up your sight for me, who am I to protest?"
"Maybe a very silly man," Toph smiled. Sokka laughed softly, but the soft shudders soon turned to tears, the first ones he had cried since he had left the Earth Kingdom.
"I will never leave you again," he promised as the water trickled down his cheeks. "I went insane without you, I lost who I was, and I never want that to happen to again. I want you to be there to keep me sane, to keep me warm and alive. I want you to be there for me to love,"
"I will be," Toph reassured, and then dragged him up so she could hug him. "I will never let you go again, Sokka, even if it kills me."
"Good," Sokka sniffed. "Because I'm not going anywhere." He pulled back gently and dipped into his satchel. "I brought back your blanket," he murmured as he offered her the red patchwork that had lived in his trunk for so long.
Toph reached out to find the material and smiled as she recognized it. "Still so soft. Haven't you used it at all?"
"No, I think a part of me was waiting until we could put it back on our bed. I felt wrong to use it without you underneath it next to me."
"I give you the warmest possible quilt to take to the coldest possible place and you don't use it?" Toph shook her head in disbelief, but all the same a pleased flush spread across her pale cheeks. "Well, now it can grace our bed once more."
Above them, the sky melted into brilliant colors, which in turn faded to a dark blanket as the two sat up late into the night. Sokka told Toph of the watchtower he had built in Katara's memory as she had suggested, and Toph in return told Sokka of how Zuko had found her a few years after he had left. After a while, they didn't speak at all, merely lay curled together under their blanket; skin against skin, heart against heart, their breath mingling. And when Toph traced her finger over his heart, Sokka felt one the jolts of emotion that he had become used over the past few weeks but this was one he had not felt for a long time. Love, he realized after a moment.
Sighing softly, he trapped her hand over his chest and relished in the gentle glow that flowed through him as the feeling intensified. Toph guided his hand to her own heart and the two lay in silence, finding comfort in the steady beating of the other's heart and rediscovering their own.
For anyone curious about the title, the Latin roughly translates as 'Glories of the World Pass Quickly'