Four rewrites, two crashes and writer's block later, here it is. The completed and massive chapter four. It includes everything I chopped out of chapter three, which was a bit short. I altered the genre because I think there's more angst than romance at the moment, but that'll probably (hopefully?) change back in future chapters. Anway, hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: no matter how nicely I ask, they still won't let me keep the characters for myself.
Each evening, the western sky turned to flame and night began to spread its veil in the east. The heat of day dissipated rapidly at sunset and the chill of nightfall drove the villagers indoors to banked hearths and warm beds. To the men darting from the shadows of one building to the next, that same coldness was a blessing. Only the moon and the stars above saw their hurried dash to the small blue hut that stood on the outskirts of the village.
Sokka stepped onto the porch and rapped on the door twice. Behind him, muffled curses rose as the men jostled each other. One scathing look from their leader, however, and they fell silent. The door opened, and Sokka waved them through ahead of him. He quickly bolted the door behind them and turned around. Hana looked at him from the doorway of the audience chamber and raised a steely eyebrow. If she was taken aback by the three men in Fire Nation prison uniforms standing in her home, she didn't show it.
"And the meaning of this late night visit is--?" Hana glanced at the barely conscious man that Sokka's men held between them. "I don't have enough stew for one of you, much less four." She took in the bound and gagged man, who wore a prisoner's rags stained with blood and soot. The healer assessed his injuries in a glance but a heavy on her shoulder stopped her from stepping forward for a closer look. She simply looked at Sokka for an explanation as he pulled off his helmet.
"I saw three of you leave this village."
"We brought back a bonus," Sokka answered flatly as a grim frown tugged at his mouth. Hana had seen that hollow look in his eyes many times before, and she knew that this was not the same man that had taunted her in front of her husband. Something had changed during his three days at the prison. Rather than ask questions, however, she gestured curtly for the guards to take the prisoner into the audience chamber.
Hana's husband looked up from tending the fire and Sokka saw the transformation from a broken old man to a leader. He pulled himself upright as his face shed its sorrow and became stern. He glared at the prisoner with a ferocity that Sokka had not imagined him capable of, and the hatred in his eyes was mirrored in his wife's scowl as she took her seat. The other chair in the room was occupied by a mountain of a man dressed in the deep green and gold colours of the Earth Kingdom. Another elder, Sokka realised, spying the familiar logo on the man's shoulder; the earthbender elder's logo was sewn in dark blue whereas the Water Tribe elders' logo was stitched in bright gold thread, reflecting the temporary alliance that ruled this village.
"I had heard from the scouts that you were returning, Sokka. They didn't mention the addition to your group." The deep, soothing tones of the earthbender's voice carried the slight burr that Sokka associated with the southern Earth Kingdom. The elder ran a massive hand over his chin, smoothing his silver beard down onto his broad barrel chest. "Explain."
Sokka glanced to Hana first for confirmation: was it safe to speak in front of this man? At her nod, he bowed to the elder and avoided looking at the prisoner as he spoke. He couldn't afford to let his own distress show in his voice if he wanted to persuade these people to his plans.
"Sir. This gentleman is a former employee of Ozai's prison service." Sokka's tone dripped contempt. "He is a firebender from the maximum security wing of the prison. We interrupted him as he attempted to beat a prisoner to death." The words sounded so clinical and precise, giving no suggestion of the fury and despair that Sokka had felt in that cell, but the distance was exactly what he needed. He heard the prisoner cry out once more, that inhuman note of terror and agony echoing once more in his memory, and his fist clenched by his side. Fortunately Hana interrupted his unhappy thoughts.
"When did you capture him?"
"This evening." Sokka was grateful for something external to focus on. "After your scouts had returned to you."
"Very well. If the council have no objections," she glanced at the earthbender elder, "my husband and I will take responsibility for the prisoner. He is injured, and I may be able to heal him. Who knows, he may even feel inclined to answer some questions." She smiled. It was all teeth and deadly intent, Sokka realised, like the grinning teeth of an eel shark hurtling through the water towards a hapless swimmer, ready to deliver a lethal bite. He felt absolutely no remorse about turning the injured prisoner over to Hana and her husband, and the only surprise was how little his apathy surprised him. He was still reeling from the scenes that he had witnessed in the prison and he was not above seeing a few punitive measures taken against the guilty. Part of him longed to punish the prisoner by his own hand for every wrongdoing he had seen committed at the prison.
That place has changed you, a little voice told him. Do you want to fall into that darkness forever?
Sokka silenced the voice by reminding himself that the prisoner had been turned over the village council and was no longer his concern. He didn't need to waste another thought on the excuse for a man.
"Warrior." The earthbender pulled himself to his feet, muscles rippling and shifting like boulders rolling down a hillside. Despite his age, he was easily one of the most powerfully built men Sokka had ever laid eyes on. He felt a sudden rush of hope: with men like this bender in their ranks, maybe his plan wasn't so far-fetched after all. "Come with me."
The earthbender led him outside and away from the village, until they reached an open space of land. Sokka looked around for trees, weeds, rocks, anything that would distinguish this place. There was nothing but acres of dusty, cracked earth. The earthbender stamped his foot twice and a large crevasse opened. Steps led down into the darkness and the earthbender waved Sokka on ahead.
"What, no handrail?" Sokka asked nervously. The earthbender clearly had Hana's sense of humour as he gazed blankly back. Sokka blew out a sigh and groped his way down the steps, feeling out each step carefully as he tried to ignore the man's impatient sighs behind him. At last his feet touched a level floor and he found himself in a rough tunnel. No, it was a chamber, he realised as shutters were lifted from unseen lanterns and light crept into the room.
A dozen people sat in a loose circle, each with a lantern at their feet or balanced on their chair. Whether it was intentional or not, he could only pick out the vaguest outlines of faces through the gloom and a slight suggestion of colours, dark blue and white, green and gold. Nightmarish shadows danced about the walls, the floor, the ceiling, with each movement, and Sokka felt a chill slide down his spine. He had not enjoyed any of his few experiences underground and the demons playing in the corners of his eyes wouldn't make this one any better.
What is it with earthbenders and dark underground caverns? he asked himself. Are some of these guys former Dai Li agents?
"Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe." Although Sokka had taken comfort in his own distant formality while standing in the safety of Hana's house, now he found that cool, even tone issuing from the shadows a little unnerving. "Hana has already informed us of your mission. You are the advance party of a collaborative force of the nations created in response to reports of a functioning Fire Nation prison to the north. Rather than report to us upon arrival, you instead to travel to the prison in order to collect, ah, intelligence." The voice had travelled from disinterested to faintly mocking. Sokka bit his lip to restrain his sarcastic response; sassing the council would not endear them to his cause, and he was here to petition for their support.
"When you did not return by morning," continued that emotionless voice, "Hana sent her scouts. They did not speak to you personally for the following days."
"I reached the prison with two guards before dawn and we waited until the sun had risen to approach the prison," Sokka explained. "The Avatar's message was delivered to the warden, but his response was negatory."
"Negatory?" Another anonymous voice, female this time, spoke.
"The warden refuses to acknowledge the authority of either Avatar Aang or Fire Lord Zuko. He openly pledges allegiance to the true heirs of Sozin and, in his own words, he will continue to protect the Fire Nation from their enemies, until the throne is restored to its rightful owner. There was no way to persuade him otherwise."
"Did you resort to violence?"
"Appealing, but no." As tempting as the idea had been when he listened to the warden's misguided display of patriotism, Sokka had reminded himself not to blow his cover and hoped that his men would share his discretion. Fortunately they had. "The messenger returned to our camp to wait for the scouts while my guard and I remained in the prison. We were able to explore most of the prison, barring the high and maximum security wings."
"And your findings?" That bored voice carried an unspoken message: tell us why we should spare our people to help you.
Sokka borrowed a lantern from the nearest elder and, crouching in the centre of the unmarked circle, began sketching in the dirt. A ripple shuddered through the floor and the entire circle turned to soft sand. Sokka flashed a grateful smile towards whoever had done that and proceeded to draw out his plans. He told them the size and layout of the prison, its fortifications and defences, the numbers of guards and their patrol patterns that he had observed throughout the day. His new plan would require a strike force of earthbenders and waterbenders positioned at strategic points around the prison. Their strength would not lie in numbers but in successive attacks deigned to spread the defending forces too thinly. Hana's scouts had arrived from the village each morning to check on Sokka and each time, they gave him more accurate calculations of the numbers of fighters available in the village, and Sokka had planned their attack around those figures.
"That is all good and well, but why should we ask our people to risk their lives for your sake?"
"If the Avatar's personal request isn't enough for you, let me suggest this." Sokka straightened up, his sketches forgotten for the moment. "I've been inside that hellhole. I've seen people being kept in cells barely larger than the seat of your chair, I've seen people who get to eat once a week and get a spoonful of water a day if the guards feel generous. I've seen children born in those cells, who've never seen daylight and can't imagine a world without walls. I've seen people beaten and starved and tortured for fun. And although most of the records have been lost, I was able to determine that there are almost four hundred prisoners there. Forty or so of those people are political prisoners, captured from villages on this island and held as collateral. A further twenty are Fire Nation criminals deemed too dangerous to hold in other facilities."
He held the borrowed lantern over his head, casting his face in grim shadows and lighting his sincerity in the flickering emerald glow. "Of those that I could identify among the prisoners, approximately two-hundred were Earth Kingdom citizens imprisoned during the Hundred Years War, and the remaining hundred-odd came from the North and South Water Tribes. Those are members of our people, of your people, suffering every single day." Each council member found themselves pinned that earnest blue stare, until he looked to the next. "Every one of you has friends and family that disappeared during the war, whose deaths couldn't be confirmed with a corpse and who were just assumed gone. Why? Because the alternative was too terrible to contemplate." His voice lowered. "For those people, that alternative has been their reality for the past six years. Can you honestly leave them there to suffer any longer?"
"Most impressive," drawled yet another faceless elder. "You are a politician, not a soldier. You can deliver honeyed words, but a silver tongue won't win this battle."
"I have spent years fighting the Fire Nation, in my village and alongside the Avatar during the Hundred Years War." Sokka gestured at the plans scattered across the dirt underfoot. "A general would look at these fortifications and the calculated numbers of the enemy, and he would tell you that this cannot be done with your present forces. That we should wait for the Fire Lord's elite squadrons and for further backup from the Earth Kingdom. Perhaps he would be right." Sokka shrugged. "But I know it can be done."
"Oh really?" queried a third voice, unfamiliar in its inflection, familiar in its faint tone of disbelief.
"A wise bender once taught me that you should never devote all of your energy to a single strike. Make several decisive hits. Break your opponent's stance. Then deliver a final blow. He will fall under his own weight."
"And who was this sage? The Avatar?"
"No." Sokka swallowed the lump in his throat. Aang had indeed related the story to him, but the original teachings had come from another source. "An earthbender, a master of the art." For a moment, he didn't think he had the strength to say her name aloud. But he refused to give in to such weakness. To his surprise, his voice remained steady as his stomach twisted in on itself. "Just a twelve-year-old girl named Toph Bei Fong."
The earthbenders stiffened to a man and a ripple of surprise ran around the circle. It had been a low blow, and Sokka almost regretted invoking the name of a war hero simply to win over a group of stubborn council members.
"Very well, Sokka. We assume that you have identified the weak points to target?"
This was the moment to stop, to back away and confess that he was relying on conjecture over concrete facts. Instead, Sokka nodded firmly and replied, "I believe so. If you look here, I'll show you…" Once again he crouched over his maps, and this time, the entire circle of elders leaned forward to listen intently. The occasional suggestion was made, numbers recalculated or squadrons repositioned, but finally the plans were laid and the decision completed.
"Report to the village hall in the morning," commanded the enormous earthbender that had shown Sokka to the emergency meeting. "We will meet at first light to discuss the organisation of the squadrons." He glanced to his colleagues for unspoken confirmation and, upon seeing their nods, continued, "Your information may interest the other villages immensely. In return for our help, we may be able to persuade them to join us."
"Thank you." Sokka wished that he knew more than two words to fully express the gratitude he felt.
"Don't mistake us. We are doing this for the sake of our lost kin, not for you."
And you don't think that I might have some relation to those prisoners too? Politicians, always have to spoil a good thing, Sokka's inner voice complained. He made some polite response to the council and moments later he found himself climbing the stairs up to the surface. A quick stamp from the earthbender ahead of him made the ground split open once more, revealing the night sky above. Sokka emerged from the ground in another area of the wastes and traipsed back to the village, kicking along a rock as if it resembled all of the thoughts that he tried to put into order. Unconsciously his feet led him along the streets towards the infirmary and the healers' houses nearby. Katara was here as a healer, after all, and perhaps she could ease the lingering disquiet that clouded his mind.
The little boy smiled up at Katara and held up his arms for a hug. His tear-stained face was crinkled up with joy, and as Katara picked him up in her arms, she marvelled at the transformation from screaming and howling to happy and giggling. He showed no more signs of discomfort as she rubbed his belly and handed him back to his mother. The woman could only be a few years older than Katara herself, but like so many of the people Katara saw each day, her face was lined with the troubles that a woman three times her age carried. An hour ago, the distraught woman had almost battered down the infirmary door in her haste to reach a healer. Now she was smiling through her tears of relief and tripping over her words as she tried to thank the waterbender. Katara simply smiled and squeezed her shoulder, offering some last advice as she walked mother and child to the door. She watched them walk away together into the darkness and then closed and bolted the door again.
Katara strode down the narrow aisle between the thick white curtains that enclosed each bed and divided the room into cubicles. One more crisis had been averted for another family, and now she could draw a deep breath and enjoy a moment's respite.
That would all change in a few short days. Hana had told her almost nothing about Sokka's mission, except to tell her of his absence and to prepare the infirmary for a large influx of patients. Katara's questions had gone unanswered, but even Hana's attempts at obfuscation could not divert Katara's suspicions. There was only one place left on the island that could produce the numbers of patients Hana had suggested, but the female elder had clearly been reluctant to discuss it. She could never allow herself to validate Katara's earlier calls for the elders to recognise the prison as a problem that needed to be dealt with. If Katara's theory was correct, Sokka's mission would overthrow the peaceful life of the village for the foreseeable future.
Instead, Hana had ordered Katara to oversee the transfer of the recovered patients to their villages or, for those who chose so, onto the sand-barges, to cross the wasteland and plains beyond to reach the small city on the coast. Most of the infirmary beds were now empty, some with curtains drawn, others open, affording narrow glimpses of the shadowy spaces beyond. Soon they would be full and the infirmary would become another field hospital and another place of noise and chaos. Where too few nurses and even fewer healers rushed between the patients as the air grew thick with moans of pain and pleas for help, with the rancid smell of sweat and fear and blood. But for the moment, Katara found the infirmary a place of calm and quiet.
The only sounds in the room were the slow breaths of the patients sleeping in the beds around her and the occasional rustle of a sheet or a blanket, a murmur as they shifted and settled more comfortably into their world of dreams. From here, they were just shadows behind the thick curtains, which caught the light of the lanterns dotted around the room and glowed in soft shades of cream and gold. Katara wandered from bed to bed as she checked on her patients once more, padding noiselessly across the stone floor and slipping through the curtains with barely a whisper. She was no more than a creeping ghost to the people lying in the beds, no more than a half-heard sound or an unfelt touch stirring at the edge of their awareness. She could disappear and none of them would notice. None of them would remember her in the morning. And in the long hours when night stretched into morning, she felt herself fading away from her own recognition, becoming a ghost in her own skin.
Katara reached out to the last curtain and felt a shock of contact as her fingertips brushed heavy cotton. Ghosts didn't feel. There was a moment's disorientation as she slipped through the opening and found herself in the narrow aisle once more, anchored to the real world by the weight of the curtain in her hand, drawn back into fantasy by the shifting hues of the fabrics stirring in her wake.
The temptation to slip away into that fantasy world was powerful, but Katara knew that she would never answer the call. Her life and all of her problems were hers to deal with, sooner or later, and letting herself sink into whimsy would not help. She rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose as she searched for the strength to stay awake another hour, and the hour after that.
Someone tapped very lightly at the door, rapping out a familiar pattern. A healer was asking to be let in after hours. Katara slid the bolts back and eased the door open far enough to admit the other woman.
"Evenin', Katara." The woman smiled a greeting. "I glanced in the window and you looked like you were havin' some nice thoughts." She chuckled. "You were getting all dreamy and misty-eyed. Must be lovely to have someone special like that."
"Yes," Katara replied neutrally. I'm sure it must be.
The healer looked at her oddly for a second, then shrugged it off. Perhaps the rumours linking Katara to the Avatar were untrue after all, the woman thought, but Katara's apprentice had sounded so certain as she relayed the gossip.
"It's been a long time since you've seen him, hasn't it? Well, I wouldn't worry. No one can do better than a pretty Water Tribe girl. His eye won't go wanderin'."
"Thank you." It seemed to be the only answer short of telling the woman to mind her own business. Katara knew that the village's grapevine constantly grew new leaves and branches of scandal and rumour, but she wondered when she had revealed enough of her personal life to add another leaf to the public stem.
"Don't mention it." The other woman followed Katara as she made a final check on each patient and continued prattling. "Looks like it's going to be quiet tonight. Don't tell me, Hana slipped another sleeping draught into their water?"
Katara laughed dutifully and didn't bother to tell the woman that, all jokes aside, she was correct. For some of the patients, it was the only way to give them a decent night's sleep. Katara wanted nothing more than to escape from the heat of the infirmary into the cool night air and, as if reading her mind, the other woman peered closely at her face.
"You know, you look like hell. You should go get some rest."
Gladly. "The other healers will be back at sunrise," Katara informed her relief. "Good night." She paused only long enough to sign herself out of the log book and fled before the woman could say anything else.
Katara stepped down into the street and took a deep, bracing breath of the cool night air. A mouthful of dust left her coughing and spluttering and only slightly ruined her moment of self-indulgence. Fortunately there were no witnesses to her embarrassment. Between the searing heat of day and the bitter cold of night, nobody lingered in the village streets a moment longer than they had to. The buildings were functional instead of beautiful, the villagers hard-working, and those who did step outside had a destination in mind, which was reached before the blazing sun became unbearable. The only exceptions were shipping days, which saw all available hands working at the docks to unload and reload the sand-barges that arrived from the harbour on the other side of the island. On a daily basis, however, the concept of a leisurely stroll was unknown here and she had left that practice behind in the cities of the great nations. Here, everybody hurried, and her rapid pace simply made her one more person caught outside after the unspoken curfew.
Katara crossed the street and let herself into her house, but she didn't bother to light the lantern hanging by the front door. She didn't want to ruin her night vision, and she had walked through the darkness enough times that she could navigate the house perfectly. Eight steps from the front door to the kitchen, a further six to the back door, open that and let pale moonlight spill across the earthen floor. She stopped long enough to rummage inside one of the cupboards, letting her fingers brush across the objects inside until she found what she sought by its rough texture. Pulling out the clay flask, she picked up a couple of small glasses in her hand and stepped out onto the back porch.
It had taken several tries to explain to the earthbenders what she wanted, but in the absence of wood she now had an earthen platform adjoining her kitchen that was sheltered by the overhang of the roof. The front of her house faced the village and the back looked onto the vast, open spaces of the wastelands. Most people found the view too melancholy, but there was something in it that Katara found relaxing. Perhaps it was the stars, she mused as she dangled her feet over the edge of the porch.
When she had first come here, the unfamiliar stars had both comforted and disconcerted her. Without the clouds and smog of a city to block their light, thousands of tiny grains lay scattered like sand cast on a fortune-teller's dark cloth, stretching from horizon to horizon. She had sat outside on the night that she arrived here and tried to count the constellations, but she had only found herself weeping at their foreign beauty. They were not the stars that had watched over her childhood in the South Pole or that she had learned to read while wandering in the desert with Aang. They were patterns that she had never seen before and they reminded her that she had left behind everything that she knew to come here. Yet as frightening as that concept was, it reassured her. The very land itself was different here and she was a one stranger among strangers, unremarkable, unremarked. She was simply another ghost on the land, without past or future, lingering here as long as she had a reason not to disappear into the light of the rising sun.
Katara uncorked the flask and inhaled the fumes rising from the liquid inside. She rarely resorted to drinking and the liquor had spent the better part of the last year aging in the back of various cupboards, but on nights like this, when the memories and the thoughts lay close to the surface, she sometimes needed a little additional moral support. She poured a little wine into a glass and took a sip, savouring the bitter taste that made her mouth twist slightly.
It took her a moment to recognise the voice, a second longer to remember why he would be at her house, then she flew off the porch to throw her arms around him. Sokka held on for a moment longer than she expected and she knew that he was upset.
"Sokka, what is it?" She quickly glanced him over for injuries, but there was only a lingering sadness in his eyes. She knew that sadness all too well; it stared back at her from her reflection every day.
"It's nothing." He attempted to smile and only managed a grimace. "I'm just glad to be back." This time his smile was more genuine. He slung an arm around her shoulders and steered her back towards the porch.
"I thought I'd drop in on my sister and see what she was up to," Sokka continued. "I must say, I didn't expect this. Is that wine?" He gestured at the flask.
Spirits, why did he return right now? Katara asked, but there was no response from the ether. She was pleased to see him, but she also knew that she couldn't easily explain away the flask of rice-wine. Sokka dropped onto the porch and picked up the flask. He took one sniff and pushed it away.
"You actually drink that for fun? You've changed, Katara."
Trying to ignore the unease that Sokka's remark stirred in her, Katara knelt opposite him and laid her hands on her knees. They immediately closed into fists. "So, where were you? It's been three days, Sokka."
"All right." Sokka heard the faint accusation in her tone and immediately moved to defend himself. "If you tell me where you've been for the past year, I'll tell you where I was for three days."
"Sokka, I…" I do owe you an explanation, but please don't ask me to tell you. I can't do it, not yet.
"Hana should have told you this, but I went to the prison." He saw Katara sit up a little straighter, and continued, "We had planned to send the messenger in at dawn and return by nightfall, but we were able to enter the prison and decided to explore. It was just as well." His voice trailed off and his face lost any trace of colour. When he looked at Katara again, his sadness had been replaced by a fierce new resolve. "The people in there need our help now. Forget waiting for the Fire Nation reinforcements."
"What are you saying?" Katara asked softly.
"I'm saying that I want to snatch that prison out from under the warden by the full moon. The council are gathering the benders from this village and those nearby for an emergency meeting tomorrow. I want you there, Katara. In two days, we'll be at the prison, and I want you watching my back. I need you as a bender and a healer."
Sokka couldn't mention the man that he had captured and brought back for questioning, but he felt his blood boil once more at the memories. To Katara's surprise, he leapt to his feet and paced the length of the porch. He kept his back turned as he continued, but Katara could hear the sadness and rage in his voice.
"We found a guard attacking a prisoner. He would have killed her if another guard hadn't alerted us. We stopped him, but…" He shook his head in frustration. "That wasn't the only incident. The things that go on there… They've got to stop, now! Before any more innocent people are hurt or killed."
Katara sat completely still as she absorbed Sokka's news. She could barely believe what she had just heard. After all of her petitions to Hana and the council had been denied, after constantly being told to worry about her current problems instead of adding to them, Sokka had just paved the way for her to go to the prison and help people who really needed it. She knew that she should feel ecstatic, and perhaps she would once the shock and confusion wore off. It was excellent news and it was terrible news.
"Sokka…" She tried to break it to him as gently as she could. "We just don't have the numbers to launch an assault against the prison. And frankly, the timing is terrible."
"Timing?" Sokka retorted as he began to pace again. "I'm sorry, let me just go and tell the prisoners that they can enjoy a few more days of being starved and beaten because we're too busy to help them!"
"Sokka, you know that's not what I meant." Katara resisted the urge to let her temper rise to match her brother's. He didn't deserve her anger. "I'm just wondering if we have enough time to do this before…" Before we have to leave.
"Listen to me." Sokka turned around to face her and Katara saw that his eyes gleamed a little too brightly. "As soon as we can gather our forces, we'll be at the prison. We'll help those people. Whatever it takes."
Katara's heart clenched as if an unseen fist had closed around it. She had heard those words before. She heard them almost every night in her dreams, in the moment before they turned into nightmares. 'Whatever it takes'. As a teenager, she had been determined to pay that price, regardless of consequence. Now, however, she knew that the price was often too high. She couldn't stand by and watch another sacrifice made in vain.
But how could she even begin to tell Sokka that? It would mean telling him everything, every single thing, and she wasn't ready to do that. Almost six years had passed, yet they had never really talked about what happened on that horrific day, or the days that came afterwards.
"Don't worry," Sokka continued, visibly brightening up as he reached for the flask. "I have a plan, now I just need the means." He gazed at her for a long moment but before Katara could say a word, he poured a generous measure of wine into both glasses and pushed one towards her. He held his glass up and added, "I don't know about you, but I could use a good drink. Here's to having a plan to help those people."
Katara would gladly drink to that. They tapped glasses and Sokka sputtered slightly at the strong taste of the clear liquid. He looked from the bottle to his sister with a newfound respect.
"Where in the world did you get that? Don't tell me you brewed it yourself."
"No." Katara knew her cheeks were turning pink, but she still tried to act nonchalant. "It was a gift from a family I helped once."
"The bottle's half empty! I'm not kidding, how did that happen?"
There had originally been six bottles a year ago but time had whittled the number down to two. Katara didn't bother to tell Sokka; she didn't think he could handle the information right now.
"Oh Sokka, just forget it and drink up."
"Who are you and what have you done with my sister?" He peered at her suspiciously over the rim of his glass. "My sister doesn't know how to have fun. She certainly doesn't drink… whatever this is."
"Rice-wine," she murmured, taking a long sip and rolling the smooth, bitter liquid around her mouth. She shuddered slightly as she swallowed and felt its warmth tingle through her stomach. Already she could feel herself beginning to relax, and she welcomed the half-forgotten sensation.
"You're just full of surprises tonight." Sokka took another mouthful and, once he stopped coughing, a slow smile spread across his face. Venting to Katara had eased his worries left over from the council meeting and the bittersweet wine was making him forget the weight of his troubles. "Good surprises at that."
Keep drinking, Katara willed her brother. As long as she kept his glass full and his mind diverted, there would be no need to talk about more personal things. As long as she kept his glass full, she could get through the evening without breaking down and embarrassing herself.
"Where did you get this?" Sokka asked as he slopped more wine into their glasses.
Katara forced her mouth into a bland smile as she replied, "The southern Earth Kingdom. I helped a farmer and his son in return for a few meals and a roof over my head. They gave me this when I left."
"It smells pretty sweet," Sokka remarked as he sniffed at his glass. "The clay flask hasn't affected the taste. I'd guess it's only been bottled about a year, right?"
"Just under a year," Katara replied uneasily. Sokka was clearly fishing for information and while she wouldn't mind telling him about her travels someday, it would raise inevitable questions about why she had left.
"I'll have to find that farm. This is amazing!" Sokka refilled their glasses once again and held his up. Katara knew what was coming. Although she tried to brace herself, she felt her stomach suddenly drop away and where it had been, a great aching void took its place. She desperately wanted to cover her ears and block out Sokka's words, but she also knew that she needed to hear this. She needed to face it once again.
"A toast," Sokka declared, following a pattern that had been established five years ago. "To those we know."
"To those we love," Katara forced out the response in a whisper. The void in her chest was growing, sucking all her warmth away and leaving only cold despair behind. She wanted to get up and run away without looking back until she found herself in a place beyond her fears. She had done it before, after all. But she forced herself to remain in place and resist the temptation to flee. These demons were her own to face.
"To those we knew, and who have gone before us. Spirits bless them." Sokka threw back his drink and poured again.
"Spirits keep and bless them." She drained her glass before she could think better of it. Already the room and the glass in her hand were blurring. She blinked, and the world shattered apart into a thousand pieces, sharp edges glittering and shining silver in the moonlight. She could feel the tears brimming on her eyelashes and knew that she could not stop them from spilling over. She could sense Sokka's compassionate gaze but she refused to turn her face aside.
"You really miss him, don't you?"
"Of course I do! He was our father!" Katara wiped away a tear that had escaped. "Don't you?"
"I miss all of them," Sokka replied softly. He gazed into his drink as if he could see the memories of his past play out there. "It's not so bad most of the time. Then the anniversary comes around, and I can't help but remember."
Katara wiped at her cheeks in a futile attempt to conceal the true depths of her grief. From the uncertain looks that he kept shooting her, she knew that Sokka didn't quite understand her tears, shed six years late. It was time to tell her brother the truth and give him a little piece of the puzzle that she had become.
"I miss them too. I miss them so, so much," she confessed miserably. "Every single day, I think about them. I find myself wishing they were here, that they could see what I'm doing and hear what I'm saying. I think about Mom. I think about…. about Dad. I even think about…" Her throat tightened on a sob, crushing the name unspoken. She looked at Sokka regretfully; she didn't want to say it aloud and cause him any more pain. She struggled on, "Everyone told me it's supposed to get easier, so when does it? It's been six years, for spirits' sake! Every day it hurts just as much as it did the day before. And it's not supposed to." Her voice cracked and broke as she whispered to herself, "It's not supposed to hurt this much."
Sokka reached across the table and laid a clumsy hand on her arm, squeezing with a brother's comfort. "It's okay, Katara," he sought to reassure her. "The anniversary puts it on everybody's mind. We're all hurting."
He doesn't understand, Katara realised dully. He doesn't understand, added a voice inside her head, because you won't tell him anything. She shook her head as if she could shake away her problems.
"It's not just during the anniversary," she admitted at last. "I think about them constantly, every single day. Whatever I'm doing, I wish that they were here with me to share it."
"And wherever they are, Mom and Dad can see that. It only hurts this much because you love them. Don't be sorry for that." Sokka put his arm across her shoulders and hugged her to his side. Katara closed her eyes and hung her head in silent shame. If Sokka knew the truth… he would never say such kind words to her.
"Do you ever…" Seeing Sokka's curious look, she tried again, "Do you ever think about her?"
"Yes." A single word could convey years of sorrow. "I think about Toph, just like I think about Mom and Dad and everyone who died in the war. But it still gets to me sometimes. When I'm tired, I find myself looking for her or wondering where she is, and then I realise. I mean, you and I were separated, but I always knew that you and Aang were there if I wanted to visit. But Toph… isn't. And it doesn't feel the same without her." Sokka ran his finger around the rim of his glass, producing a faint squeak.
"I'm sorry, Sokka."
He looked up with a question in his eyes.
"I know that you two were… close." Katara had known about the earthbender's not-so-subtle crush on her brother, and she had known that they had confided in one another, but how close had they been in actuality? She frowned. There had been so much that she hadn't bothered to learn in the little time they had shared.
"Yeah." After a second, Sokka took a breath and continued too-cheerfully, "But life goes on for the rest of us. You and Aang are, well, doing your thing. And I've got Suki now. We're happy, aren't we?"
Are we? Katara drew her fingertip around the rim of her glass in unconscious mimicry of her brother. It sang a clear, mournful note.
"This happens every year." Whether it was the alcohol or his own need to confess, Sokka ploughed on. "It's only natural to think about what happened. And in a few days' time, everything will settle down and we'll go on as we did before."
Katara wished she could believe her brother's forced cheer. She took another sip of the bitter wine and let it wash the hard lump of sorrow out of her throat. The wine was making her maudlin, as it sometimes did. Sokka could finish the remainder, but she had reached her limit.
"You're right," she agreed dully as she dried her eyes. "And I'm sorry that I got so upset. I don't know why, this never gets any easier to talk about."
Sokka offered her an understanding smile and looked relieved when she smiled weakly in return.
"Speaking of Aang and whatever you're doing with him…" He reached into his shirt and pulled out a scroll, which he presented to her with a knowing smirk. "You've got mail, from the Avatar himself."
"Thanks." Katara wiped away the last of her tears and took the scroll. Sokka looked at her expectantly and waggled his eyebrows. She shoved the flask of wine towards him.
"All right." His smirk became a grin. "I can take a hint. I'll see you in the morning. Sleep tight, Katara." He picked up his glass and the flask of wine, and as an afterthought he turned back to give her another hug. "It's gonna be okay, little sis."
"Good night." Katara smiled as he stumbled into the kitchen and headed towards the guest room, reeling drunkenly into the walls as he went. At least one of them would sleep well that night. As tempting as it was to stay out here a little longer, she could feel herself beginning to shiver with cold. She tucked the scroll in her belt and returned to the house, locking the door behind her. She tiptoed down the hall to her own bedroom.
Inside, she felt her way to the window and threw the shutters open, letting the moonlight pour over her and into the room. She leaned against the window sill and closed her eyes, enjoying the cool midnight breeze blowing across her face and neck. Finally curiosity won out over her trepidation and she broke the seal on the scroll.
Aang's penmanship had improved since he last wrote to her, Katara realised wearily, but he had changed little since they last spoke a year ago. Whatever anger and frustration Aang felt at the slow progress of the political negotiations had vanished with his delight at finding her once again. He talked about the day they would meet again with a degree of enthusiasm and optimism that outstripped even her memories of him. He looked forward to every new day, because it would bring them closer to meeting. There were other words in there that she hadn't expected to see, like reunion and promise and love.
We'll go on like we did before. Sokka's words echoed in her mind. Obviously Aang wasn't concerned by her absence. That's a good thing, she reassured herself. There would be no need for long explanations or pleas for understanding. She read the letter again and this time she allowed herself to fell the comfort of Aang's words. He was completely happy, and he promised that they would meet again in a few short days. And then, I'll clear up any confusion between us.
Katara rolled up the scroll again and quickly undressed for the night. She never used the bed, preferring the worn sleeping roll that had accompanied her on her travels. She snuggled into the thick, silken fur and breathed the familiar scent, letting it reassure her once again and take her back to happier days. Her hand tightened around Aang's letter and pressed it to her breast. Aang would be with her soon, and all would be right with the world.
Katara's eyes snapped open and she stared into the darkness. She could lie to her brother and Aang, but she could never lie to herself. Aang alone wasn't enough to set right everything that had gone wrong with her world. There was one person who would have seen through all of her deceit, and Katara felt sadness well inside her heart at the thought. She could imagine the blind girl's reaction if she could hear Katara's thoughts that evening. But Katara only carried the memory of that roguish grin and the mocking laughter that would have accompanied it.
She would never hear the earthbender's laugh again. She would never hear another sarcastic remark from those lips or see another knowing smirk cross that pale face. She would never be called Sugar Queen again with such a perfect mixture of derision and affection. The thought filled her with deepest sorrow and she sought the anger that usually followed it, but this time there was no such relief. Without the distraction of anger, there was only the unbearable loneliness, and the knowledge that no living person could offer her solace.
Katara curled into a tight ball, clutching Aang's letter tightly. She focused on her memory of his grinning face, those grey eyes closed with joy, his hand resting on the blue tattoo on his forehead. She refused to let herself think about those other memories, of another grinning face, of sightless eyes half-hidden beneath unruly black bangs.
No, she would think of Aang and only Aang. The airbender would be here soon and while he might not be able to cure her desolate mood, she hoped that he could lessen it.
To be continued...