Disclaimer: I do not, in any way, shape, or form, own anything belonging to the Avatar universe.
A/N: Now edited to fit Finale canon.
It was unmistakable. Tired and dusty though he was, Sokka was still able to identify the savory smell that was wafting towards him on the evening breeze.
He'd know that scent anywhere, and his travel-weary body was drawn towards it literally like a fly to rotten fruit. It was well past dinner time and even though he'd been snacking on his "travel food" almost non-stop, it had been quite a while since he'd had a healthy helping of good old meat.
And yes, twenty-four hours definitely constituted "quite a while", especially when they were spent traversing the hard, rocky roads of the Earth Kingdom. Sokka understood now exactly why Appa needed four stomachs. Traveling was hard when you were carrying yourself, and Appa had carried anywhere from three to seven passengers at a time in addition to his own huge body weight.
Of course, Appa could fly. He didn't have to deal with the aching feet that Sokka was now nursing, nor the painstakingly long journeys that only took a few hours in the air, but on foot often took a few days. Sokka had been on his feet for the majority of the past four days, with another two ahead of him before he was due to meet up with Aang, Katara, and Toph at the western shores of the Earth Kingdom. From there they would all fly on Appa to the heart of the Fire Nation.
Sokka's nose was never wrong when it came to meat, and his feet tended to follow his nose without any encouragement from his brain, so he allowed himself to daydream as he walked. Thinking of the upcoming reunion with his best friends in the four nations had turned Sokka's thoughts back, for the first time in weeks, to his days as a member of "Team Avatar".
He couldn't help grinning to himself. Those really had been the days. Four kids—five, eventually, once Zuko joined up—traveling the world, saving people, determined to defeat a tyrannical Firelord and his insane daughter and thereby restore peace and balance to the world.
Okay, actually, most of the restoring of peace and balancing of the world had been done by Aang. What could you expect? He was the Avatar. Stuff like that was his job. But Sokka had been right next to him from the beginning, fighting his fair share of Fire Nation soldiers and doing his best to protect his family and friends. He had proven himself, over and over again, despite his lack of a bending ability, and earned the world's respect as one of the "heroes" of the great war.
Five years. Was that really all it had been? Five years ago Aang had brought the Firelord literally to his knees, stripping him of his precious ability to bend in an awe-inspiring display of power. Sokka had to admit, as frustrating as Aang's aversion to ending "any life, no matter how corrupt," had been, the kid had really come through in the end. Ozai had been locked up and was, to this day, still surviving in a Fire Nation prison that very few knew how to find. Even less well known was the whereabouts of the new Firelord's sister, Azula. Sokka was one of the few privileged with that information. The disgraced princess was still living in the palace, more or less under house arrest. She was under continuous guard--she had proved herself too crafty to be left on her own--but for all anyone could see, the fight had gone out of the once proud Princess Azula. She rarely spoke and spent most of her time alone or with her mother, whom Zuko had managed to find shortly after his father's defeat. Sokka was still very wary of Azula and rather though she was being shown too much leniency, but Zuko and his mother were adamant that Azula had suffered enough.
Things had gotten busy fast after Ozai's defeat. The gang had managed to sneak in a short vacation at Iroh's teashop, but the demands of the healing world had soon called them back to work. Aang had been busy helping to rebuild what the Fire Nation had destroyed and quelling several military uprisings. The gang had been more than happy to have an excuse to travel together a while longer, but eventually they had all been called their separate ways.
Zuko was suddenly swamped with Firelord duties. He had been nervous, Sokka remembered, about stepping into the position, but he had had a good support team—the calm, loving influence of his recently freed mother, and the wise counsel of his Uncle Iroh. It had been seeing Zuko sitting on the throne of the Firelord that had brought home to his friends that they really had done it. They'd won.
Toph had been unsure about what to do next, though a letter from home—this time one-hundred percent valid—had persuaded her to go back. The last Sokka had heard, she had struck a deal with her parents in which she would finish her societal education while still being allowed to earthbend in tournaments, this time as Toph Bei Fong. She was no longer the silent or unknown daughter of the Bei Fong family but a legend—the blind teenager who was widely renowned as the greatest earthbender of all time.
Aang, in his free time, was renovating the Southern, Western, and Eastern Air Temples—leaving the North for Teo and his people—with the small band of Air Nomads they had discovered hiding in the Earth Kingdom. They had even found a small herd of sky bison, much to Appa's delight. This was perhaps the work that gave Aang the greatest satisfaction. He was no longer known as the Last Airbender. The Air Nomads were back and though they had started small in numbers, they were growing exponentially every year.
Sokka and Katara had gone home with their father, ready to help rebuild, but neither had been able to adjust back to tribal life. Years of travel and seeing the world had taken its toll on them and for Sokka especially, the South Pole was just too small. Katara had chosen to see it through as long as it took to get the tribe back on its feet, but Sokka had been too restless. He'd gone off almost as soon as he arrived.
For a while he'd stuck to traveling back and forth between his family's village and Zuko's palace but he soon started to branch out to newer, less familiar paths. He would train and catch up with his father and sister and often Aang, who was a frequent visitor to the South Pole. Then he would sail northwest to visit Zuko, who had become a surprisingly good friend after their adventure at the Boiling Rock. Zuko and Sokka would spend hours "conferencing" together, which usually meant that they sat around eating, drinking, swapping gossip, and occasionally sparring. The relaxing way that they spent time together made it hard for Sokka to remember the days when Zuko was "just an angry freak with a ponytail," a jerk who followed them across the world making life miserable for them. Sokka trusted him now, and valued his friendship, which was why he was on his way to the Fire Nation to celebrate Zuko's marriage to his long-time girlfriend, Mai. Sokka had to admit, the girl he had dubbed as "gloomy and sighs a lot" was in much better spirits these days, though she hadn't lost her quick sarcastic wit. Mai had suffered as much as anyone during the war because of her sudden switching of sides for Zuko's sake. She had spent much of the end of the war locked up beneath the palace. Sokka had grown to respect and eventually like her as much as any of his friends and he was truly happy for the two of them.
It was lucky he'd received word in time, actually. Zuko's hawk had only just found him a few days ago, along with a note from Aang saying that he would be waiting at Chameleon Bay with Appa, Katara, and Toph until the summer solstice, just two days away. Luckily, Sokka hadn't been far from the appointed spot and was going to make it in time. He'd scribbled a reply for both Aang and Zuko and sent the hawk off and changed his course, excited to be reuniting with the group again.
Sokka's musings were interrupted when his feet stopped moving in front of a large inn sitting on the outskirts of a small Earth Kingdom town. He sniffed the savory smell of cooking meat appreciatively and congratulated his nose for successfully navigating him to its source, which was indeed the inn before him. There was a lot of activity going on both inside and out. Ostrich-horses were stabled and picketed everywhere around the yard and turkey-ducks were wandering underfoot. Stable hands were dashing here and there feeding the animals or brushing them down, occasionally getting kicked or pecked. Sokka could hear the bustle, chatter, and laughter coming from inside as he stood on the threshold, beckoning him in to where a hot meal and warm bed were waiting. He adjusted his pack on his shoulders and strode confidently forward, urged on by the rumbling of his stomach and the soreness in his feet.
He pushed the wooden door open and walked into the entry way where a little old woman, her face full of smile wrinkles, was sitting behind a long bar. A set of stairs to the left of the bar probably led to the sleeping quarters, but Sokka was currently more interested in the open expanse to his right, where tenants and Earth Kingdom regulars from the village were eating, drinking, and relaxing together, swapping stories and laughter much like Sokka and Zuko often did. The innkeeper (or his wife, as it may have been) appraised him with a smile, her eyes twinkling.
"Welcome, stranger, to the Sleeping Platypus-Bear. Would you be liking a room and a meal?"
Sokka nodded. "Please and thank you." He handed over a handful of the larger Water Tribe coins as his stomach gave a particularly loud gurgle. The older woman chuckled. "If you wouldn't mind including a healthy helping of whatever it is you've got roasting over that fire..." he said, indicating what looked like a roasting turkey-duck.
"Of course," she grinned. She tossed Sokka a small iron key over the counter which he caught deftly, then beckoned for him to follow her through the large common area, grabbing a clean plate from under the bar.
By the time he got his plate, full of steaming turkey-duck legs, warm bread, and a bowl of broth that had vegetables swimming around in it, Sokka was salivating so much that he only just managed to avoid drooling all over his food. The old woman followed him to one of the only empty seats in the room, carrying a tankard she had filled from a keg behind the bar. She set it down in front of him as he swung his pack to the floor by his feet.
"Enjoy, and help yourself to seconds," she encouraged, still smiling widely, before returning to the counter to aid a couple of young men who had just entered the building.
Sokka needed no further urging.
He went at it with a will, favoring the meat over the rest but hungry enough to down it all anyway. He took a large swig from his tankard, both surprised and elated to find that it was apple beer, a beverage he loved that could only be found in the earth kingdom. Soon that was gone as well. Sokka downed seconds and thirds of everything, probably in record time, before sitting back in his chair and belching with satisfaction.
Some things just didn't change.
His belch was answered by another one, a louder one, if that was even possible. For the first time since sitting down, Sokka remembered that he wasn't alone at his table. There were two men sitting across from him drinking and laughing about some ostrich-horse adventure, but the belch had come from the chair next to his, in which was sitting...
Sokka did a double take. It was a petite, dark-haired girl, garbed in traditional Earth Kingdom green, going at her food with as much fury as he had been a few moments earlier. The longer Sokka watched her, the more fascinated he became. There was a walking contradiction sitting beside him. Her clothes, though cut in the poorer style, were clean and made from more elegant fabrics—Sokka only knew this because he'd spent so much time wearing the rougher, scratchier fabrics that most of the Earth Kingdom's clothes were made from. Her profile was elegant and actually very pretty, though her eyes were closed and her head tipped forward as she shoveled food into her mouth, never spilling a drop.
How could anyone be so callused and yet so refined?
The young woman smacked her lips appreciatively after taking a large bite out of a turkey-duck wing and Sokka, curious more than ever, decided to try and talk to her.
"That's quite an appetite you've got there," he commented off-hand, taking a large swig of apple beer.
She grunted, swallowed, and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "I haven't been able to eat food like this in almost five years," she explained, never once opening her eyes. "Life in society is far more cruel than anything you find out here."
"Ah," Sokka agreed, even more intrigued. It was rare that someone who had grown up in privilege ever chose to leave the comforts they were allotted. In fact, this was only the second he had ever met, the first being Toph. Who was this girl?
"Seriously," she continued, apparently anxious for an opportunity to vent, "why would anyone want to spend their life bound by the thousands of rules society places on you when you could be here, stuffing your face with a healthy slab of meat?" She gestured around the room with the other turkey-duck wing before biting into it with a vengeance. "I don't understand," she said around a full mouth. "Why not live life while you can, right?'
"Definitely," Sokka agreed, his gaze riveted on her. Why hadn't she opened her eyes yet? Her entire head sat unnaturally still as she ate and talked, as if she could barely stand to be distracted from anything but her meal. Or as if she wasn't used to needing to move it around.
"When I was a kid I got the chance to wander around living the way I wanted to, but I've spent the past five years living in almost constant restraint, all for my parents. Thank goodness for earthbending, or I might have gone completely insane."
"You earthbend?" Sokka asked, surprised. Another facet that didn't seem to fit the young woman in front of him.
She grinned at her plate. "You haven't seen earthbending until you've seen it from me, my friend. I'm one of the greats, if I do say so myself."
"No kidding." Sokka knew there were plenty of great earthbenders, but having spent so much time with Toph, it took a lot to impress him. After all, it was pretty tough to beat a blind girl hurling boulders around with deadly accuracy. "How so?"
"You ever hear about metalbending?"
Sokka laughed, remembering the way Toph had used to shove metal around as easily as if it were as flimsy as paper—a feat he had always found most impressive. "I most certainly have."
"Piece of cake."
Sokka took another drink, nodding his head in acknowledgment. "Okay, sure. I get what you're saying. But I've seen Toph Bei Fong in action." His companion said nothing, so Sokka continued. "We were friends as kids, and she was probably the best in the Earth Kingdom even then." He frowned. "You remind me of her a lot, actually—"
Sokka blinked. She had slammed her hand down on the table but she still hadn't opened her eyes, or even moved her head. How had she known his name?
"Sorry, do I...know you?" he asked, suddenly feeling like he'd missed a very crucial link.
In response the girl turned to face him, opening eyes that were a startling green—green that was covered with a milky film—and waving a hand in front of her blind eyes.
No... No, it couldn't be...
"No," she said sarcastically. "Toph Bei Fong? The blind earthbender who's been living in captivity for the past five years? How could she and I possibly be the same person?"
But Sokka could see it now, in her face and in her mannerisms. It was Toph, just a decidedly more grown-up version of her with slightly longer hair. His face broke out into a wide grin.
"I can't believe it. Toph!" Sokka then did something he usually reserved for Katara—he pulled Toph into a very tight hug. "Why didn't you tell me you were you?"
Toph, perhaps a little startled by the enthusiastic greeting, returned his hug breifly. "I practically did," she muttered, a little grudgingly. "I knew it was you from the moment you spoke, and I kept on waiting for you to recognize me but you never did." She turned back to her food and even though her tone was gruff and her words harsh, Sokka could see her happy smile.
Sokka was feeling quite floored. Toph was sitting there, right in front of him, after five long years. He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed her—missed all of them—until this very moment. "How are you here?" he asked, unable to quell his excitement. "Seriously, I was thinking about the good old days all day and then you're sitting next to me at an inn. Toph! It's so good to see you!"
Toph waved a hand dismissively, though her smile grew brighter. "Can't say that I return the sentiment, though it is good to hear your voice again," she said lightly. "Of course, it doesn't squeak anymore, so it's a lot easier on the ears."
Sokka's mouth dropped open and he couldn't help laughing. "I see you haven't gotten any more polite! And my voice did not sqeak."
"It so did," Toph grinned. "I know my voice has changed a bit too, but that shouldn't be an excuse for you. You have eyes, right? I can't believe you couldn't tell it was me," she continued. "I dropped every hint I could think of, waiting for it to dawn on you. That's sad, Sokka, when your blind friend recognizes you first. What do you use your eyes for anyway, if not to see?"
"Ha ha," Sokka retorted, still unable to lose the grin he was sure looked goofy now. "For your information, you don't look a thing like yourself. How was I supposed to know it was you?"
"How can I not look like myself, Sokka?" she asked exasperatedly. "I don't recall being anyone else lately."
Sokka laughed. "I guess you wouldn't know much about it, but people change a lot as they grow up. They get taller and more oldish and stuff."
"Oldish?" The tone in her voice told Sokka in no uncertain terms that she didn't like that word. He scrambled to come up with a better way to say it.
"You know, more grown up-looking. Mature." Yeah, mature was the word. And if there was anything that described the way Toph looked now, it would be "mature", Sokka realized. All of the baby fat she'd previously had around her face was gone and she'd grown quite a bit taller. She held herself with dignity, even if she still ate like a starving moose-lion. And there was something about her face, something in her expression that exuded confidence and demanded respect. It was clear to Sokka that Toph was no longer afraid of rejection, from her parents or anyone. She expected the world to take her for what she was—a talented young woman with a very prominent rough streak.
"Hmm..." Toph reached out for her tankard and Sokka marveled, as he often had before, at her ability to do such normal things with so little difficulty. The table was wood and therefore much harder for her to "see" with, but she moved easily, without spilling a drop. She really was something. "People kept on telling me how "grown-up" I looked back home," she admitted doubtfully, "but I didn't think the change was so drastic... Do I really look that different?"
"Don't worry," Sokka assured her. "You still look like Toph. Just older."
"Ah." She fell silent and Sokka leaned back contentedly. He spent a few moments watching the hustle and bustle of the people around him, enjoying the smells of the food and the fire. Across from him and Toph, the two men stood and crossed the room, disappearing out the front door of the inn, probably returning to their respective homes in the town.
"Are you staying here tonight?" Sokka asked.
"Yes. I'm meeting up with Aang in a few days...hey, wait!" Toph stuffed the last of her bread into her mouth and turned to face Sokka. "You're going to Zuko's wedding, right?"
"Most certainly am," Sokka agreed. He was about to ask why, but Toph banged her fist on the table triumphantly, startling him.
"Yes!" she hissed, her face jubilant. "That means I can ditch the escorts!" She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. Sokka looked where she was pointing and found himself staring at two very large, muscular men who rather looked like over-sized porcupine-gorillas. The were standing side by side at the wall behind Toph, watching the goings on of the people in the inn with squinty, dark eyes.
"I know," Toph grumbled. "Mom and Dad were ecstatic that the Firelord sent me, their precious daughter, a personal invitation to his wedding, but they absolutely refused to let me come alone." Her tone turned slightly bitter. "Something about being the 'Greatest Earthbender Alive' doesn't get through to them."
"Where did they find those goons?" As Sokka watched, one of the bodyguards abruptly smashed an offending insect into the wall behind him, causing the foundation of the building to shake.
"Earthbending tournaments," Toph admitted. "Dad sometimes came to watch me when I competed, as long as he got his own private viewing chamber." Toph's voice was dripping with sarcasm. "In any case, if I travel with you then those two have no reason to follow me around anymore!" This cheered her up significantly.
Sokka picked at some crumbs on his plate. "Why haven't you just ditched them already?"
"I tried to buy them off," Toph said unashamedly, grinning. "Didn't work. Either my dad paid them a heck of a lot more, or they didn't want to go back home without some assurance of my safety. I think the money plus you will be enough, though." Her grin turned evil and Sokka found the expression contagious. "They're pretty tired of me. I've been giving them a bit of a hard time," she finished innocently, her tone clashing completely with her grin.
"Well, I'm happy to help," Sokka agreed. "I was in serious need of some company anyway."
Toph stood up abruptly. "Great. Come with me to talk to them, and tomorrow the two of us will set off together, goon-free. Deal?" She stuck her hand out at Sokka as he stood as well and Sokka took it, shaking it once firmly.
It ended up being even easier than Toph had said. All Sokka needed to do was conspicuously finger the hilt of his one-of-a-kind sword and promise to look out for Toph and see her safely home again. Toph passed them some money and the two of them lumbered off upstairs, promising to return home in the morning. Sokka almost asked for a high-five, but remembered just in time that Toph had no way of seeing it.
He grabbed his pack from the floor next to their table and slung it over his shoulders before the two of them headed upstairs to turn in for the night. Sokka entered his small room feeling greatly satsified. He was so full and so content that he didn't even bother grousing to himself about the small bed. He hadn't realized just how much he'd wanted to see his friends again and having Toph here now was making him happier than he'd felt in a while. Once this whole ordeal was over he would try harder to be less distant. Maybe he'd even find a place to settle down, somewhere close to his friends or family.
Sokka fell asleep with a smile on his face. Three doors down the hall, Toph did as well.