Rules of Engagement
Written for the .moon Winter Challenge - Gift-Giving
by Kihin Ranno
Sokka had tried to cheat a giant owl and nearly gotten pecked to death for it. He'd avoided death by hanging off a blimp in the middle of a firestorm his eyebrows still hadn't fully recovered from. He'd also stared down Katara in her fiercest rages, which were now as legendary as her speeches of hope and meaningful tears (not that anyone mentioned this to her ever.) He'd experienced all of these terrifying happenings, and every time, he'd been afraid. Sometimes the fear even kept him going – kept him alive. Fear had helped him more than hindered him.
In this case, however, Sokka's fear was being a gigantic pain in butt.
"Sokka, I wish you'd just tell me what all this was about," Suki laughed as she worked a damp cloth over her face. She systematically removed every trace of ceremonial makeup, the stained fabric turning darker between her graceful fingers. Her skin turned bright pink, but she glowed. He liked to think she lit up for him and not just from the water. "You came all the way out here. I know it wasn't just to stare at me."
He grinned and leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. It felt damp and cool, but it did little to calm his nerves. "Maybe I did. You have to admit, you look good."
She laughed again, leaning away. The sound usually made his chest feel impossibly light. Now his stomach twisted like the cloth she wrung out. "You're sweet."
"So my biographers tell me," Sokka joked. Unfortunately, his sardonic bravado failed him miserably. The time was off and stuttered. "I… Suki, there's something I need to ask you."
She smiled and opened her mouth to answer, but Sokka had a feeling if he let her talk, he'd wind up even more horrified by what he was about to do. So he simply plunged ahead, grasping for the words Aang had helped him with before he'd come to the island.
"Suki, I love you," he began, having felt it was best to start with the painfully obvious. "I think maybe I always have. Even when I was being a total jerk about girls fighting when we first met. Even when you made me dress up like a girl!
"I thought about you a lot on the quest… mission… thing." He blushed, wishing he'd memorized this properly like Katara had told him to. "Every day. And now that it's al over, I don't have to worry about dying or the fate of the universe, so I can think about you a lot more. But I don't want to think about you." He shook his head as if clearing water from his ears. "I mean, I want to be with you. Forever."
He fumbled in his pocket and, finding nothing, fumbled in his other pocket. Then he pulled out the gift he'd been set on giving her since the moment she came back to him in the final battle. His sweaty, clumsy fingers presented her with the gift. He beamed at her with the enthusiasm of a child showing off a painting he thought was a masterpiece.
Since he was more or less clueless about jewelry, he'd enlisted all of his friends for help in designing this for Suki. Katara had suggested that instead of blue, he use forest green to match her uniform. It had been Aang's idea to use a lighter fabric instead of the traditional leather considering the warm climates Suki preferred. And Toph had found him the perfect gold, bending it from the Earth. That had left Sokka with the task of forging the metal just as he'd made his space sword. He took just as much care with this trinket, engraving the symbol for the Water Tribe next to the character for fan. It was perfect.
And it was just for her.
"It's beautiful," Suki murmured, awed. Her hand stretched towards it. "It reminds me of Katara's."
"Yeah," Sokka answered quietly. "It was our mother's. An engagement necklace."
Suki's hand jerked to a stop. "Sokka… are you—"
"Yes," he interrupted, his voice high and shaking. "Yes. Suki, will you… will you marry me?"
Sokka felt as if he had waited for this moment his whole life. He had imagined her shrieking with surprise and then shouting, "Yes!" loud enough for all the other Kiyoshi Warriors to hear. She'd say yes again, yes of course, why didn't you ask me sooner, yes, yes, yes. He had dreamt of the happiness in her voice. It would be like a song even though Suki couldn't carry a tune. All he wanted to do now was close his eyes and lock the sound of her acceptance in his mind forever.
But her face said it all.
Ty Lee was bored, so she went for a walk. Then she got bored again, so she walked on her hands. Then, just when she was about to get bored again, she saw Sokka sitting alone by the fire. She grinned widely and bounded over to him, cart wheeling part of the way.
"Sokka!" she squealed, throwing her arms around his neck. He tensed, but she was used to that. She tended to have that affect. "What a surprise! I didn't know you were here."
Ty Lee paused, but pressed on, undeterred. "Is Suki around? Oh, I hope I didn't interrupt any romantic activity. I'd be so embarrassed if I was butting in. Am I butting in?"
Sokka grunted again, but it sounded like 'no' to her.
"Fantastic!" she chirped, swooping down beside him. "So how have you been? Busy I bet, rebuilding all the damage Ozai did during the comet. Gosh, that was a mess. And I heard from Mai that Aang and Katara are together now. That sure surprised me. Were you surprised? Honestly, I thought she had kind of a thing for Zuko. They certainly fought passionately, don't you think? But of course, I wouldn't be too happy about that since Mai is my oldest and dearest friend. Next to Azula anyway. I'm not sure if she really counts anymore. Well, at least the dearest part doesn't sound right." She stopped, giggling. "I'm sorry; I'm rambling. Come on, tell me all the news."
Ty Lee blinked. "I'm sensing a mood."
Finally, Sokka made a different noise. He sighed.
Ty Lee immediately fathered up what maternal instincts she'd managed to gather during her childhood surrounded by entirely too many siblings. "Oh, you poor thing. You're miserable. What's the matter?"
Sokka leaned forward, his head hanging low between his shoulders. "I asked Suki to marry me."
Forgetting the context, Ty Lee leapt to her feet and shouted, "Yay! That's wonderful! Wait until I tell—"
"She said no."
Ty Lee froze. "Oh." She sank down self-consciously. It was an unusual emotion for her. "I see."
Sokka sighed again.
"I'm so sorry, Sokka," Ty Lee whispered, biting her lip. "I can't imagine how you must feel."
"It's a lot like how I felt in battle," he muttered, staring at the dirt. "I'm was always aware I could get hurt or… die, but part of me thought it was okay, because I knew at some point, one way or another, it would be over." He shut his eyes, pained. "But now it feels like I'm always going to be hanging there but I'm never going to fall and I'm never going to have a chance to put my feet on the ground."
"Yeah. Very bad."
He pulled out a necklace from his pocket and held it between his hands. She was reminded of when she'd found a butterfly-bird near her home when she was a girl. She'd thought it was sleeping, but when she couldn't wake it up, she'd cradled it, utterly devastated. She'd been wrecked by the knowledge that she'd lost such a beautiful thing.
"It's lovely," she whispered solemnly, burying the memory again.
"That's what Suki said," Sokka murmured, his eyes open and glistening now. "Right before she dumped me."
Ty Lee turned away, staring at the flames. "So it's over?"
"Yeah. She said she just… didn't love me anymore."
She winced. "Oh, Sokka."
"She said she hadn't missed me much since the war ended. That was how she knew. She said if she really loved me, she'd miss me. She thinks we were just too afraid of what might happen to know what our true feelings were. She was going to write me, let me know. But then I showed up and she didn't know what to do." He tightened his grip on the necklace, his knuckles turning pale yellow in the firelight. "I thought she was being kind of distant. She pulled away from me once. I thought I'd just thrown her off."
Ty Lee frowned. Then she reached out for Sokka, more purposefully than before. Usually, her hugs and other touches were impulsive, not considered until after they were finished. But when she wrapped her fingers around his strong wrist, she meant it deliberately. She hoped he sensed that. "You're a good guy. You know that, right?"
Sokka stared down at the necklace, oblivious to Ty Lee's touch. "Just not good enough for her."
Ty Lee's heart broke a little for him. "No, Sokka—"
His arms jerked away from her. Suddenly, she found the necklace just inches away from her face, dangling in and out of focus. "Take it," he instructed.
"Take it," he repeated. "You think it's pretty, so take it. Consider it a gift." He released it without warning, and Ty Lee's reflexes reacted without her brain wholly consenting to action. Her hand shot out, saving it from dirt and ash.
Now that Ty Lee got a closer look at the necklace, she saw just how much care Sokka had put into it. It had been custom made, not picked up idly at some market place. He'd put his heart into it and he'd put Suki into it alongside it. It was perfect.
But not for Ty Lee.
"Here," she said, holding the necklace out to him again.
Sokka groaned. "Ty Lee, I told you—"
"I'm giving it back."
"But I don't—"
"No!" she shouted, borrowing a tone from Azula. It certainly got his attention. She lowered her voice and continued, "No, Sokka. I like it, yes, but it was for Suki, not me. I can't accept it. It just wouldn't be right.
"You put so much effort into this. It would be a shame just to pawn it off on me because you don't want to look at it anymore."
Her eyes drifted toward the fire.
Sokka raised an eyebrow. "So you want me to set fire to it?" he deadpanned. "Yeah. That's much better."
"People who aren't Fire Nation don't get it," she mused. "Fire isn't about destruction. Well, not just. It's like… when a forest catches fire. Things die, and that's sad. But they're not dead forever. Everything always comes back, but different. It's a new beginning."
She pressed the necklace into his hands. "Maybe that's what you need. A new beginning."
For a long time, Sokka didn't say anything, nor did he look away from the necklace caught between their palms. She could see he was mulling over it, deciding, trying to figure out what to do. She stared at him with hope in her eyes, praying that he did whatever was really best for him.
He snatched the necklace away and thrust it into the fire. She smiled. He didn't let go of her hand.
"To new beginnings," she said.
"To new beginnings," he whispered a little sadly.
She squeezed his hand, and together, they watched the past burn.