Leaves from the vine, falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells, drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy, come marching home
Brave soldier boy, come marching home
A/N: The first timeline of this story is an AU after the Western Air Temple.
They'd known from the beginning, sure as the sun would rise the next day, that none of them would be alive to see it fill the air with its hue.
Aang had mastered all four elements - Air, Water, Earth, and Fire - but the last mastery had come too late. Just as the Avatar readied for the final battle with the malicious Fire Lord Ozai, Sozen's comet began its steady streak across the day-lit sky. The Earth and Water nations trembled in fear as the beautiful white light spelled their doom. Aang had mastery, but Ozai had mastery, experience, and held a cruelty that made him more than a match for Aang with the boost of the comet.
There was nothing the Avatar could do but fight…and he was too late.
Sokka's feet clapped the stone floor as he ran, searching for his companions through the wild wreaths of flame that surrounded him on all sides and tried to pull his flesh into their embrace as he passed.
"Katara? Katara, where are you?" the young man wasted precious breath with the call - the smoke trapped inside the Fire castle was slowly suffocating him. Sokka's only answer was a cry of pain as Aang crashed into a wall nearby, sent there by a blast of lightning from Ozai. Sokka had no chance to offer his help (and what help could he possibly be for the Avatar?) as he raised a sword to clash with an enemy's. Of course, Sokka wasn't good enough for a powerful bender to pay attention to - all he got to fight were half-rate soldiers that presented just enough challenge to keep him separated from the others. With a growl the warrior slipped his black sword in the chink between the shoulders and helmet of the enemy, killing the other instantly. Warm redness seeped down the jian onto Sokka's hands, but he simply flicked it away without remorse. Now wasn't any time to mourn the lives he took, he had to find Katara and Zuko - had to protect them. The time for mourning would come later.
Too late for Toph; Sokka was unable to do anything but fight his battles and watch out of the corner of his eye as thirty master firebenders took down the stubborn earthbender. In the end all that identified her as his former friend at all was a few pieces of her charred robes; a piece of Sokka died right along with her, and he knew that if he lived through this battle his grief would know no bounds.
Heat crackled across his flesh. The young swordsman felt his skin sear as he tumbled through another flame in search of his sister. "Katara!" Pain lanced through his side and Sokka pressed his hand to a seeping wound. Damn the Yu-Yan archers for making me so weak… He could have found his sister faster without the arrow wounds he'd sustained.
Sokka tripped once more past another pillar, finally catching sight of his missing sibling.
Quickly evaporating water still pooled about her, tainted dark red with her blood. The girl's eyes were glazed. "KATARA!" A ring of fire bending soldiers lay around her, their bodies coated in lacerations from her water whip. Right beside her Sokka recognized the most hated form of Azula. She'd obviously gotten a lightning strike in on Katara before succumbing to her wounds - most likely it was that lightning that killed Katara...The death of Zuko's sister brought Sokka no satisfaction, not at the price it came for.
And where was Zuko? Wasn't he supposed to help protect his precious sister, even though she still resented the banished prince? He had sworn… but then the fugitive might be dead too…
Horrendous thoughts like that made the smoke-laden air suddenly more unbearable, choking him with unexpected weight. Sokka swayed unsteadily, rocked by another blast that signaled that his last friend Aang would soon fall prey to the black shadow of death as the others had. A strangled sob escaped the boy - soon he would be the only one left, and then what was the point of fighting anymore? Every person he'd been living for would be gone. Gone forever.
In that moment of despair perhaps Sokka didn't see the red-armored warrior run toward him, or perhaps he couldn't bring himself to care, but the Water tribe boy made no move to block the sword that plunged into his gut, wrenching out a scream. He sank to his knees, unable to move and push the attacker away as his senses returned. NO! I have to help Aang before I die! I can survive this- the thought was cut off as the nameless enemy twisted the blade in his stomach, causing foul copper blood to well up and dribble over his chin as excruciating pain shot through him, making his body involuntarily writhe.
"Sokka!" he heard his name as if from a distance, so far away that it echoed like thunder in his ears. Before he could turn his head to see the caller, the soldier before him was burning, screaming in pain from a fireball thrown his way. Sokka fell to the side without support from the man's sword and he prepared to crash into the floor.
Vague surprise made itself known when he didn't meet hot stone, but warm arms that caught him and lowered him to the ground almost gently. Sokka's distorted vision grew blurrier by the moment, but with much effort he could still make out piercing golden eyes and a bloody, scarred face. Relief crashed through him like a wave. This person was alive, at least for now.
"Zu…ko…" Sokka managed to wheeze, choking slightly on his own blood that welled in his throat. The liquid spilled out of his mouth down the side of his cheeks, mingling with the blood of the enemies he'd already executed. A copper taste in Sokka's mouth grew, becoming nearly unbearable as Zuko's visage slipped in and out of focus. Maybe Sokka was imagining that frantic look on his face, or those shiny spots in his eyes that might be a sign of tears…Sokka wanted desperately to laugh - there was no way the angry jerk was crying for him.
"Stupid peasant! You let your guard down!" the prince tried to chastise him harshly, but Sokka felt the telltale tightening of the other boy's arms and fully realized that Zuko had not yet pulled the enemy sword out of his stomach, which the both knew would only hasten- "Don't even think about dying! Don't lea- Sokka, don't die…" Zuko's voice finally cracked; a product of the smoke and heat, Sokka could almost convince himself. All their carefully built barriers from the last year were falling away, and Sokka couldn't muster the energy to hide behind a joke anymore.
I'm sure the moment I enter the spirit world Iroh will be forcing tea on me and asking how you are. The crack went unsaid, lost amid a gurgle.
Sokka's mind was becoming hazy; he could see black creeping at the edges of his consciousness and his breaths were coming harder as blood started to fill his lungs and spill on the floor and on Zuko. He was hyper-sensitive to every heartbeat and the pain it brought as more blood pumped out of his body even under the pressure of the firebender's hands as he tried to staunch the flow.
Spirits, how Sokka wanted to reassure his friend - wanted to tell him that it didn't really hurt, dying…even if that was a lie. With a final massive effort Sokka brought up a shaking hand to touch the prince's face as the boy holding him started to tremble. His fingers brushed Zuko's infamous scar for the first time, but he wasn't thinking of how the mark felt like soft sandpaper, or how it radiated heat just as the rest of his surroundings did.
Sokka thought of his sister, of Toph, the most certainly dying Aang, finally of Zuko, his inexplicable comrade from a friendship forged by war and similar goals - the destruction of the Fire Lord.
Sokka couldn't hold his hand up anymore, and let it fall away.
"…Sorry..." he finally gasped.
The last thing Sokka saw was burning gold eyes as his vision faded into painful black.
Cold winter air and the stunning warmth of love pervaded the animal skin tent, as a shrill cry erupted inside after a harrowing nine month wait.
"Congratulations from the Spirits, my daughter. You have a son!"