A gift fic for my honorary sis, The Writer Triumphant.
I'll warn you all up front; I'm not as familiar with Avatar as some people are. This is an AU Tokka piece.
Anyway, chapter one.
Chapter One: Of Kings and Queens
Revolution struck long after the world forgot how to turn. The seasons had lost track of who came before whom and who came next, and after a while no one cared anymore. Autumn reigned supreme; its throne a pile of crackling leaves, its roads the dusty grass of drought and its sky an ailing canopy drooling silt from a six-year-wildfire.
For Sokka, revolution came on just another morning. He awoke as always, aching from the straw and mud bed he shared with two Earth kingdom boys, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and instantly regretted all of it. Every morning he opened his eyes to the bitter black clouds lurking over Ba Sing Se, churlish shapes that consumed and regurgitated each other a dozen times a day but never turned into anything else. He could see them through the windows.
Sokka hated those windows. Every day he squeezed his eyes tightly shut again, begged his heart to burst, and tried to will away his memories of a clear blue sky over the former Earth Kingdom capitol.
And every morning, Toph kicked him.
"Wake up you moron," she said for the eighteen-hundredth time. Sokka's breath burst from his lips, and he gasped to get it back. "Come on Snoozles," the Earthbender urged him. "I want to eat, and I don't want some other idiot sitting next to me at breakfast."
And as always, Sokka smiled just a little bit, and loved her that much more. If only Toph knew she had saved his life every single morning for six years—maybe then she would stop kicking him so hard.
It might help if she knew he loved her, though.
"I'm up," Sokka half-whined. "You have sharp feet. You should have that looked at before you stab someone."
Toph managed a smirk as she stepped away from the bed, listening carefully to the vibrations in the floor so she would know where to step. Sokka watched her, admired her for her grace, and wisely deduced that he would never be able to tell her just how graceful she looked to him.
As Sokka rose from bed, still clad in yesterday's faded blue tunic and rope belt (which looked suspiciously like the tunic from the day before that), he stretched his arms high above his head, yawning as loudly and obnoxiously as possible. Some of the other workers lifted their sunburned heads to stare daggers at him, but seeing Toph roll her eyes made the gesture perfectly worthwhile.
"Hurry up," she snapped, folding her arms over her own frayed, beige tunic. Sokka liked when she did that. Of course, at eighteen years old, Toph actually had breasts to emphasize with the gesture. A lot changes in six years.
Just as Sokka opened his mouth to formulate some sardonic comment, a pair of fully armored Fire Kingdom soldiers clattered into the bunkhouse. The noise drowned out everything: Sokka's smart remark, the sleepers' protests, and even the soldiers' own commands at first.
The workers filed into the aisle, standing at swaying attention—just as they did every other morning. Today, Sokka thought, is shaping up to be yesterday again.
"Listen up, pukes," growled one soldier, his voice muted and rattling from his Fire Kingdom mask. Sokka stood bolt upright next to Toph, having long ago lost his desire to be insubordinate. He listened.
"Today," roared the second soldier, "you all have the day off."
Silence crept through the bunkhouse with all the subtlety of a Toph-kick to the ribs. No one seemed to know what to say, how to react to such a ridiculous concept. A day off? Sokka barely knew what that phrase meant anymore.
"However," the first began, shifting a bit in his armor, "you will all be required to assemble for the arrival of Lord Ozai this afternoon. Princess Azula wants every last able-bodied worker to receive credit for the work you've all done in building her capitol here in Ba Sing Se."
The hush swelled, and overflowed.
"That is all," the second soldier shouted. "Breakfast in five minutes."
And bathed in the pounding clang of their own footsteps, the Fire soldiers marched into the grease-black day outside.
An eternity folded itself into one minute as the bunkhouse workers picked their jaws from the floor. Sheets rustled. Some sat, others paced. Some stood blinking in the light, Sokka among them.
"Well, this just sucks," Toph declared, again with folded arms. "I, for one, have no desire to see that overgrown matchbox come to goad his psycho daughter into sucking up."
"It's a day off, though," Sokka countered. "A day off! One day without having to chisel Azula's creepy face into a new door."
"Poor Snoozles," Toph said. "It must be super hard to not have to lift thousands of pounds of rock around every day.'
Sokka never bothered putting on his boasting smile for Toph. She couldn't see it anyway, and he generally did not feel it, either. "It's not my fault I can't Earthbend.'
Toph let her arms fall to her sides. "I was kidding," she softly said, as if hoping the words would fail to reach his ears.
"I know," Sokka quickly assured her. He didn't know, but that lay beyond the point. "Let's get to breakfast, okay shrimp?"
Toph nodded, still staring her empty stare at nothing.
They could hear Fire Lord Ozai approaching Ba Sing Se long before his royal tank appeared over the horizon. Sokka would never forget the soulless grinding of that monstrosity's treads; the final blitzkrieg of Omashu had seen to that. He would always recall that cacophony as the herald of Aang's death—even if it had been Azula, and not Ozai, to do the deed.
Even now, as Sokka stood in the oddly coliseum-esque amphitheatre inside Azula's palace, he could smell the broken walls, the charred soil of that horrible day. Even with a belly full of passable food, and Toph standing next to him, he could feel the terrible pangs of hopelessness he felt when he watched Ozai's tank torch the school where the last of King Bumi's resistance had hidden.
Azula, too, seemed agitated by the grinding of that four-story mechanical plague. She sat directly across from Toph and Sokka, nestled firmly in the cushion of her VIP box seat. At her right hand, as ever, sat Mai—chained to the throne, dressed in the black lace Azula forced on all her concubines. Azula fiddled with Mai's chain, jerking it once in a while whenever her lips tightened into a scowl.
Sokka turned his eyes away, but, between Azula's magmatic stare and the acid-stinking gray of the sky, there weren't many better options.
So he looked at Toph.
Toph did not seem to notice.
After no less than half an hour, the rumbling of the royal tank ceased. Azula took her feet at last, leaving Mai alone, and turned her attention to the grand archway in front of the coliseum. Sokka tore his eyes away from Toph to look, too; just like a boat wreck, he found it next to impossible to keep from looking at Fire Lord Ozai. Whether this was due to morbid fascination or not, though, he could not say.
"All rise for our great King, Lord Ozai!" a herald called, his voice only just preceding two full columns of torch bearers. Clad in Fire Kingdom black armor, the bearers fanned along the walls of the amphitheater in perfect step, one after another. The formed a near-perfect ring around center stage.
Toph smirked. "It sounds like Ozai's still a drama queen."
Sokka grinned. A few others laughed. Most dared not respond.
Ozai's arrival took a solid thirty minutes. After much fanfare and ado, the Fire Lord himself emerged from the entry way. Caped, armored, and still youthful-looking despite the long scars on his face and neck-- a parting gift from Zuko-- Ozai commanded a menace and beauty that few men in all the world could match any more.
All in attendance bowed to him, except Azula. The Fire Princess stood firm on her platform, her own deep red cape billowing in the smoky breeze.
"Welcome to my new palace, Father," the princess cried over the arena. "How do you like the new Ba Sing Se?"
Ozai cast a long, ponderous gaze over the former Earth capitol, taking it in, turning to behold the slaves as well.
"It is a magnificent palace," he growled in answer, "but you had no business constructing such a place without my consent."
Sokka, who had been dozing, snapped suddenly awake.
Azula's expression remained unchanged, the same empty, broken stare she'd worn since murdering the Avatar six years ago.
"What do you mean, Father?"
"This is a capitol. This palace is not some getaway, Azula. This is a royal palace." Ozai folded his arms over his chest, a menacing stance if ever there was one.
"Of course it is," Azula shot back. "This is a queen's palace, father."
Sokka stared along with all the others. Queen's palace? Queen's palace?
"Surely you mean princess' palace, Azula," Ozai growled, a warning biting into his words.
Azula shook her head. She stepped off the box platform, descending on a pillars of flame as if they were a perfect staircase. Torch bearers scattered at the display. Sokka found himself gripping Toph's sleeve. Toph found herself needing that grip.
"Fire Lord Ozai," Azula shouted, and not a man or woman in all the worldwide Fire Kingdom dared to breathe. "I asked you here to show you what the people of this wretched Kingdom can still do. To show you that they are not destroyed, that they are strong. That they can thrive, even after six years of your oppression."
Ozai faced his daughter as she stepped to the ground in front of him. Stared at him, undaunted.
"Imagine," she hissed, a seductive, sly whisper, "what they could do under my oppression. Father."
The world stood still.
"I challenge you to Agni Kai."