A/n: Long time, no see! I was recently recruited for a Tokkaneer "Pic and Fic" workshop, in which I basically... had to write a story. It's that simple! So I did it.
EDIT: Almost a year after its original publication, I went back to this story on a whim and read it, and fell in love with it (again?), and edited it a bit. Now it should flow more clearly. Thanks to Miyiku, who pointed out a small plot issue, my story is now more culturally accurate!
To understand and fully appreciate this story, you might want to read Brute Force: Desperation first, for it is its prequel and is referenced on multiple occasions... but you don't really NEED to. Things can be inferred from the text; all you need to know is that Toph and Sokka were captured and kept in a Fire Nation prison and treated rather cruelly during their stay. Otherwise, enjoy!
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Desperation: The Aftermath
A Drabbling Series
"Are you sure there's nobody—it's safe?"
"I was sure last time you asked me too, but then we got captured and—" Toph broke off suddenly; thinking of the events that had happened not so long ago had sparked the sound of a terrifying yell in her head, one she could not yet stand to hear. "Yeah, I'm sure. Unless there's someone in the trees—like last time."
The wary warrior cast a doubtful look up and out towards the wall of trees surrounding them. No frown plagued his face, but his eyebrows knitted together with dark thought. Half of him expected to see some sort of ambush waiting for them in the trees, and yet there was nothing. Toph could probably feel his heart pounding away in his chest, regardless of his straight face. His expression didn't matter as much to her as it did to him.
No, they were safe here. If not here—where they had spent the entire day walking to, so deep within the wilderness that they would not be able to find a way out if not for his superior direction sense—then nowhere. By his measure, the town where they had been captured and, presumably, safety was just a two days' walk from here. How ironic, he thought, that they should return to the place where they had been apprehended in order to find safety. They would begin their walk first thing in the morning, as soon as they woke up.
But first things first.
"Well, we might as well stay here for the night," Sokka announced, dropping one of his heavy bags unceremoniously to the ground. He swayed on his feet, afraid for a moment as his vision spun that he might actually faint from exhaustion.
His hands found his hips and he turned in a slow circle to inspect their feeble camp. As far as he could tell, he could see nothing in the mountainous region for miles, save for more trees than he cared to count and a number of hot springs, one of which steamed a few feet away. The sun, so much hotter here than at his home, hung low in the reddening sky, its rays casting an amber light across everything from the surrounding trees to Toph's shiny headband. Sokka shuddered slightly. Typical stupid Fire Nation, stupid red, stupid secret Holds…
"And while we're here, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to utilize these convenient hot springs, right?" he asked, turning to Toph with a slight smirk. "I think we could use a good cleaning." The smile on his face flickered as his eyes cast downward at his hands, which still exhibited the remnants of blood from the previous days.
Toph answered with a long sigh and raised eyebrows. "I haven't bathed in a month, Sokka. Quite frankly, I'm surprised you haven't fainted from my smell yet."
With a small grunt and an even smaller appreciative chuckle, Sokka shrugged his pack from his shoulders, and then—with some reluctance—set his weapons aside on the soft grass. The hilt of his sword clinked forebodingly against his boomerang case; his fingers twitched at his sides.
"I can't smell you over my own stench. If I'm fainting, it's not going to be from a little body odor," he replied. Then, as if stricken with some sort of brilliance, he stooped towards his pack and resurfaced a moment later with a small bar in one hand and a cloth in the other. "And look, the psychopath even packed us some soap!"
"How thoughtful. I wonder if she was trying to imply something."
"I wonder if it's safe to use—she could have put some sort of weird skin-burning serum in it, or paint."
A small pause followed. Toph sighed. "Well, either way, I need to wash my face. So let's worry about the water first before we even think about soap."
For a second, neither of them moved. Sokka stared at where she stood a few feet away with her chin tilted toward the ground, her pack heavy and full on her shoulders. It was strange, he thought, that something as simple as bathing could envelope them in such a surreal silence. They were alive, they had a bit of food with them, safety was a lesser concern at the moment. They had suffered for weeks, gone hungry, and had come so close to death that it had appeared inevitable, and they had fought through it together. But something as simple as bathing seemed miles away, even impossible. Sokka wondered if that could be a good thing. The thought crossed his mind to ask "So what do we do?"
He busied himself in the neutral silence that followed by fumbling with the knot on his waist; Toph, sensing his motion, discarded her pack beside his and unbuttoned the sash around her hips. Her red and gold vest slipped down her shoulders, leaving her in a yellow undershirt and tan knee-high shorts that had once fit her so much better. Sokka stripped down to his shorts, looked down at his inwardly-curved stomach, and sighed. Every little thing was just another reminder of what he had lost, and the time it would take to recover.
The first thing Sokka felt upon lowering himself into the water was a most incredible pain. Every cut and burn—shallow or deep, long, short, or zig-zagged—let out a scream at being submerged beneath the lazily-steaming water. Despite his tight-fisted will to remain silent, he couldn't help but let a sharp hiss break through his clenched teeth, one followed by a sort of strained groan.
Alarmed, Toph demanded to know what was wrong, but he waved her comment away with the simple reply that it was "just a little tingle." Once the initial searing wore down to a dull throb and finally a lingering sting, the most wonderful and eerie thoughts occurred to him.
There was soft, even sand between his toes and the gentlest of breezes on his face and chest. The hot water of the semicircular, somewhat smallish pool sent little swirls of steam dancing all around him. The hot water lapped against his waist, the little ripples eddied lazily away from where he dipped his fingertips into the pool. It felt like being in some strange utopia, minus the sun, the sense of ease (which, he was amazed to find, had already begun to develop), and the multitude of women—well, maybe he had all the women he needed right now. Sokka rotated in the pool with his arms still hovering parallel above its surface, his pallid face painted with shock at the feeling of the water.
"How is it?" Toph asked quietly.
Sokka let out a long, slow breath and replied, "It's… interesting. Come on." He reached out one hand that she could not see, expectant while at the same time maintaining a kind of neutrality in his expression. He wondered if he'd picked up this attribute during his interrogations—he must have, because he couldn't remember having it beforehand—but it was a little unnerving to discover that he'd added it into his list of daily expressions. Nothingness.
Toph crept forward as if she feared that she might drop off the edge of the pool and drown. Her brows knitted together in a frown. "Is it deep?"
"No," said Sokka, shaking his head. "Take my hand."
Toph hesitated before she reached out and found his outstretched fingertips, grasping them lightly in her own—her hand trembled at his touch, he noticed with a deepening frown, but out of what? Fear, relief, exhaustion—it didn't matter so long as she was just alive. Sokka's eyes dropped from her apprehensive expression to the cold hand sitting in his warm one; his skin was pale, but hers was ghostly, though her wrists had not been rubbed raw with signs of struggle as his were.
All the better, he thought, his gentle grip never ceasing as he helped her ease down into the steaming pool.
Her initial reaction went much the same as his. The small gasp, the widening eyes—he thought he might have seen tears welling up, but he made no comment. The water came up to his navel, and a little higher on her. Toph was a little hesitant to let go of his hand at first, for fear of drowning or simply being left behind. Sokka, too, found that his hand lingered a little longer over hers before finally pulling away. She sighed and let her hands dip into the water. His makeshift bandage, now saturated, still covered the gash on her arm. If they were to untie it, the effect might be worse than if they just left it there.
"Stings," she admitted, gesturing to her forearm. "I can't imagine how you must feel."
"Where's the soap and towels? My vision's a little fuzzy with the sand and stuff."
"On the ground behind you."
Toph reached her arms through the steam, took up the bar of soap, and peeled away its thin, waxy covering. She wetted it, scrubbed a dab of the soap into the palm of her hand, and then held the bar over to Sokka's left. He felt a minute smile tick in the corner of his mouth at the sight of her, despite the obvious projection of her ribs under her shirt. A sick humor resided somewhere in their slow-paced motions, their borderline collapse.
Sokka dunked his head under the warm water and nearly cried at the feeling of fluid over open cuts, at the sore cleansing of wounds too deep to be restricted to the flesh. The briefest sense of panic washed over him at first, when the water hit the gash on the back of his neck, and he thought that he wouldn't be able to raise his head. His pulse jumped, he opened his mouth and almost inhaled the hot water, and then a hand closed over his upper arm and gave him a mighty jerk upwards. A moment later, he'd resurfaced to free air, coughing.
"What, are you trying to drown yourself?" Toph said, aghast and still clinging to his arm. He hadn't believed before now that her knuckles could turn any whiter.
Spluttering, Sokka wiped his eyes. "Sorry, I just—slipped."
"It won't happen again. Here, pass me the soap." Sokka took some of the soap from Toph, scrubbed at his scalp with his fingers, dunked his head under the water just because he could if he braced himself for it—Toph made to grab him a second time, but he reappeared before she had the chance. The flecks of dried blood began to wash away as he rubbed his palms together and over his arms, over his face. Bathing had never been so much of a luxury.
Beside him, Toph was exhibiting much of the same reaction. There came the occasional sigh, the sounds of trickling water as she rung her long, black hair through her hands. Soap bubbles collected at the top of the water in small clusters. After a few minutes of scrubbing, Sokka encountered his next obstacle.
She stopped halfway through washing her hair a second time, her hands entangled on top of her head, and turned her face towards him—more for his benefit than hers. A concerned frown tugged on her mouth. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I just—would you help me for a second? I can't reach that one spot in the center of my back. Normally I wouldn't care, but… it needs a little work, I'm guessing."
Toph rinsed herself off and shuffled forward across the sandy bottom of the pool to meet him. She stuck out her hand and he placed the bar soap into the center of her palm, then turned around so she could get to work. The first touch of her hands across his shoulders felt both soft and excruciating. Sokka clenched his teeth together to keep from making a sound as his abrasions screamed their objection against soap and water. She was gentle but thorough in her motions, running over the center of his back in small circles with one hand while the other moved upwards, pushed his hair aside, and cleaned the gash on the back of his neck.
"You can breathe, you know," said Toph, after a pause.
He hadn't even realized that he'd been holding his breath. "Oh, right. Thanks… I think."
Sokka felt that she might have smiled at this last comment, but he didn't turn around to see. He had tensed enough already between the pain and the sensation of her fingers running up and down his spine, and turning around would likely be no help to the situation.
After the soap had been splashed away from his back and shoulders, they spoke again.
"We're really lucky." Toph sighed it more than she said it.
Sokka nodded, frowning and turning in the water to face her. "We—it—could have been a lot worse. Maybe."
"I just… I don't know what to feel," Toph muttered. "Part of me is relieved, I guess, to be out of that… horrible place. Part of me can't even believe that any of it even happened, now that we're here. But I can still feel it—" She ran a hand along the curve of her own waist, lamenting the loss of her healthy figure, "—and I can tell that we've got a long way to go."
Sokka stared down at his fingers, let the sudsy water trickle over his palms and burn his red wrists. Maybe it was the long hours of interrogation that had left him so without response, maybe it was just concurrence with all that she had said. But he could think of nothing to say, despite that he agreed with her every word. Toph had described uncertainty, and it existed as clearly as the trees around them. But there was also fear, and this is what caused him the most duress.
"I know what you mean," he breathed, and he did. If nothing else, he understood her fear. "When we go back home, nobody is going to understand."
A lopsided, half-smirk flitted across her face. "Katara's probably a wreck."
"You'd better believe it. And she's going to want to know everything that happened. Details. I'm just not sure I'm ready to talk about it."
"Then don't." The smile vanished now. "You don't have to say anything if you don't want to."
Toph and Sokka finished bathing in silence, and climbed out of the spring just as darkness began to fall. They would be safer in the dark and felt no fear from it; if anyone stomped into their makeshift camp, the pursuers would be the blind ones. Sokka was curious, too—how much of an edge had being imprisoned taken off his fighting? And more importantly, how much darker was the something that had taken its place? Time would tell eventually, he figured, but hopefully not tonight.
Sokka picked up one of the thin towels that had been gifted to them, dried his face on it and inhaled through his teeth as his open cuts protested against the air. He tilted his head downward and pressed the cloth against his eyes, his forehead, his mouth. It was almost a relief just to feel the woven cloth—or at least it was, until he looked down at it and saw that the cut on his cheek had begun to bleed. He sighed. Just another thing he'd need a hand with before the night and exhaustion swallowed them up.
"There's another towel at your feet, Toph. To your left."
She didn't respond right away. The silence eventually prompted Sokka to look up from examining the welts across his chest, at which point he noticed that Toph had turned away from him.
She had begun to tremble. One of her hands found her mouth and stayed there, clamped, to keep any sound from spilling out. She was still drenched from the water, and a gentle steam rose from her warm skin in the same way it rose from the spring.
Sokka felt his chest tighten in that new found panic. They had not taken his emotion away after all, at least not the skepticism, the fear, concern. Not completely. In a swift motion, he'd moved forward, snatched up the forgotten towel, and reached out to touch her arm.
Toph, sensing the motion, said, "Don't."
His arm fell to his side, but the frown remained in its entirety, right down to the crease between his eyebrows. Sokka took a deep breath in an effort to ease the knot in his chest. It didn't work very well.
"Are you okay, Toph?"
It was a stupid question, and Toph answered it accordingly as she turned to face him, her hand still clamped over her mouth.
"Of course I'm not okay," she snapped through her fingers, clenching her eyes shut to squeeze out a pair of stubborn tears. "And neither are you."
"Toph—" Sokka faltered at the helplessness in her voice, so uncharacteristic of what she once was. Imagine, the famous Blind Bandit, shaking and dripping and half-naked, completely vulnerable in her grief! He found himself without a comeback.
Instead, Sokka opened the fresh towel in his hands, draped it around her shoulders as one might don a cape, and pulled her into the tightest hug that he could accomplish while running on empty for energy.
"It's over," he murmured, and was neither surprised nor ashamed to hear a similar waver in his own voice. His knees shook with fatigue, but he fought the creeping sensation that he would pass out so as to maintain the embrace.
Her stifled, choked sobs resonating loud in his ear. "I can feel your heartbeat, Sokka. It's so f-fast and shallow, all the time, and s-so's mine. I can feel all the marks, all over you… What—what's happened to us?"
Sokka shook his head in reply. She felt so small and frail in his hands, her grip around his waist so weak.
But it was there. Spirits, it was there and neither one of them intended to complain because they both knew it to be true. If just a few more days had passed… well, he didn't want to think about it.
For now he would push it to the side and take solace in that neither of them would have to go it alone. They would sink to their knees in this clearing, with their arms wrapped around each other and tears drying on their faces, and that was perfectly fine. Later, he might reflect on the intimacy of the moment and feel a blush creep up his neck at the thought of her fingers clutching his sides, but not tonight.
II. Initial Sight
Katara cried the first time she saw them. At first she thought that the two figures in the distance heading toward the lotus-imprinted door of Piandao's home were either trouble or a pair of presumably arrogant boys looking to learn from the Master, so when the two blurs became clear, she almost fainted.
"Aang!" She'd cried out the Avatar's name, running down the winding staircase of her favorite balcony as fast as her legs could carry her. The dust kicked up around her bare feet as she ran, the hem of her clothes whipping around her legs in time with her absolute urgency. "Aang, it's them! They're here!"
Both Aang and Piandao—they'd been sharing a cup of tea and a somber game of Pai Sho at the time—both stood up so quickly that thee nearly turned over the table. Katara could hardly speak in her shock, already had tears dropping from her chin. Her words reflected in the faces of her cohorts in the form of wide eyes and fearfully excited expressions.
But when Katara, shaking and frantic because they had been gone for so long and she had tried so hard to find them, opened the door, she had hardly enough time to cry his name before her big brother collapsed, spent, into her arms. The adrenaline rush was over; they had made it, if barely so. Toph looked hardly better than Sokka—Aang rushed forward to steady her against his shoulder as Piandao helped Katara carry her semiconscious brother inside. From around the corner, the other companions watched the emotional scene before them with saddened faces, quizzical expressions.
The butler closed the door. Right there on the ground just inside, just beyond the security of the walls, the Master and the Waterbender lowered the warrior—no harder battle had he fought before this, never had he been so tired and yet so alive—to the ground and removed an unfamiliar red tunic from his shoulders.
If she had not broken into sobs by then, she did now. His name fell from her mouth again and again in a slur of bubbling apologies and rhetorical inquiries. As Aang Earthbended a chair for Toph, who collapsed gratefully into it, they all gawked at the horrifying marks borne onto the warrior's chest. Katara demanded water and it received it within seconds, but instead of using it to Heal, she lifted Sokka's head on her lap and pressed the ladle to his lips. She stared down at the pallid face of her big brother, the protector who had not been able to protect himself, who stared unresponsively up at her through half-lidded eyes, but she could say nothing to him save for his name.
Aang turned, aghast, to the Earthbender whose face spoke aloud the events too indescribably horrible to say aloud, to think about. He received a teacup of water from Piandao and gently folded it into her quivering hands, holding his hands over hers so that she would not spill the contents of the cup across her lap. So many questions spun through his mind, each one more frantic than its predecessor.
"What happened?" he asked her in an undertone, happy and sad and terrified all the same.
The words would not come. Toph shook her head.
III. A Suitable Explanation
Katara, arms set apart in the Bending stance she typically used for healing, stared down at her brother's back with some doubt. Before her lay Sokka, who had accepted the invitation for a healing session and followed his sister out into the sunny courtyard without so much as a word. He had sprawled out over a thick blanket—a rather hideous one, she personally thought; Piandao's butler seemed rather attached to it, though, and had been less than happy when Sokka had grabbed it on his way out the door—on his stomach, shirtless so that Katara could better examine his wounds.
Her eyes darted from his upper back to his face, then back again. With his head resting on crossed arms and his eyes closed, Sokka appeared more at peace than he had since his arrival three days ago. The healing, Katara mused with a small smile, probably had something to do with it. But while Sokka as a whole, clean-shaven with his hair freshly washed and cut, seemed all right, some parts of him remained a plain mess. His back, for example, was littered with welts and bruises and—now cleaned, for the most part—cuts that still made her wince. Each one was like a story, a mystery that she attempted to close but with little success. The especially deep gash on his upper arm, the long thin lines crisscrossing the length of his torso, all signs of some sort of deeper struggle. And what of the mark on the back of his neck—one mostly covered up by his freshly-cropped hair? What of his raw and scabbed wrists?
What had happened was fairly obvious. The who's and the why's were unclear for now, but from the little hints the rest of the group had picked up, it seemed clear that the pair had been captured, questioned, and—though it scared her to admit—tortured. By the looks of things (and the way Sokka had been unable to eat much the previous night), they had been near-starved for so long that neither he nor Toph could stomach huge portions of rich food. The natural curiosity and horror she felt wasn't unexpected or even unwarranted, but it was a burden all the same.
"What—?" Faltering, Katara sighed again and let her hands fall to her sides for the time being. She shifted the towel upon which she knelt and re-Bended a glove of water onto her hand, just as she had been taught to do. In times like this, she wished she had been taught how to ask sensitive questions.
Sokka, half of whose face rested on his crossed arms, lazily opened one eye to peer at his concerned sister. One look at her relayed her exact thoughts without even a word passing between them. He merely shook his head and closed his eyes again. Katara's frown deepened.
"They all told me not to ask about it, but I can't believe that it's good to keep it all inside," she began again. "Aang told me he asked Toph what happened, but she couldn't say anything. Looking at this mess—" she gestured to his back, "I guess a lot happened. And I understand that it must be really hard to talk about, but when I look at all of this… I mean, especially this one on the back of your neck… they're fairly serious. I can't stop thinking about—"
Yet again she stopped, mid-sentence. In her explanation, she had brushed back the hair away from his neck and traced her forefinger along the ridge of the gash that dwelled there. In turn, his entire body had tensed, eyes clenching shut tighter than before, and it occurred to Katara not a moment later that he was holding his breath as if he were drowning…
Instantly, as if she feared she had burned him, Katara jerked her hand back—the water in her other hand splashed down her front once she lost her concentration—and she cried, "Oh Sokka, I can't live in the dark like this. You were supposed to come here to Piandao's mansion with Toph, but never showed up. We went looking for you for nearly a month and didn't find a thing, and then one day you two just show up here looking like you've died and come back to life."
No response from her brother. "Who captured you? What did they want you to tell them? How could this happen? I need to know—it's killing me, Sokka. What happened to you?"
Sokka buried his face in his arms, fully blocking his face from her view. Then, to her immense surprise, his shoulders began to shake and that sound of staggered breathing told her that he was crying.
No, not crying. Laughing.
Oh spirits, he's lost his mind! Katara thought frantically, recoiling backwards in horror from his shaking figure.
"Ahaha…" Sokka rolled over, then sat up beside his sister on the blanket. "Oh man, I think I'm losing my mind."
Katara eyed her brother suspiciously as he wiped a tear of apparent mirth from his eye. "Wh-what's so—why are you laughing? What happened?"
Sokka took one look at her and replied, smiling through watery eyes, "I had a bad day, and a bad month."
She stared. "You—you had a bad day…?"
He grinned ironically at her. The understatement of the year, maybe even of a lifetime. Perhaps he wasn't so ready (stable?) to talk about his feelings after all.
Katara ran a hand over her face and let out a slow breath. "I think I need to lie down."
He still has nightmares about it. Given, it's not yet been a year since their capture, and the whole ordeal caused him more harm than most his age could deal with, but he's for some reason always surprised when he wakes up in the middle of the night, holding his breath as if to keep his lungs from filling with water. Tonight is going to be one of those nights, it would seem.
Sokka rolls onto his back with a sigh and covers his eyes with the palm of his hand. Everyone else has long since fallen asleep in their rooms, still recuperating a week after the war's end. Since then, they've been in the new Fire Lord's palace, enjoying fancy parties and sitting through grueling meetings about poverty and war reparations and the like. The stress is probably what brought the nightmares back. He's not thrilled at the prospect of dealing with them—they'd been gone for a while now, and he'd sort of hoping that they'd just stay away—but he's not surprised at their unwelcome return.
Rubbing the side of his face, Sokka rolls to the edge of his fancy Fire Palace bed, sits up, and swings his legs over the side. The moon outside hangs high in the sky, glowing like the blessed orb it is, which tells him that midnight has come and gone. He heaves himself to his feet and makes his way out the door, down the stretch of tapestried and red-marbled hallway, and onto the terrace. The wind plays gently on his face, it ripples the tunic he'd fallen asleep in a few hours ago. As his eyes adjust to the new semi-light, Sokka takes a deep breath of salt air. And then he nearly chokes on it as a voice sounds off to the side.
He whips around, grabbing around his waist for a sword that sits back in his room before he recognizes the speaker and breathes a sigh of relief. "Oh—it's you, Toph."
"Scared you, did I?" He can see her smirk in the moon's dim light.
"Not at all!"
"Sure. I can feel you puffing out your chest from over here."
"Oh ha ha."
He strides across the veranda and takes a seat beside his companion. Toph looks distinctly tiny in the oversized red and gold tunic that she uses for sleepwear. Her feet remain bare, of course, and covered in dirt from making small trails in the ground with her heels. Her head falls to Sokka's shoulder as soon as he scoots down beside her and props an arm against the wooden seat.
This is normal for them—the waking late at night and finding one another parked outside in the light of the moon. Even the head-on-shoulder motion is just another ritual for them. What isn't so normal is the sudden desire in Sokka to tell her what he'd seen in what he thought had been his last dying moments, back in the Hold. Whose laugh had echoed through his ears as his vision had faded to black, just before he had been spared.
But Sokka holds his tongue. The post-nightmare times are generally not the most romantic.
"Do you think it'll ever end?" sighs Toph, reaching and grasping his hand where it sits on his thigh.
Sokka looks down at their hands, her pale one a stark contrast to his tan one. The gash on her arm looks like a long, thin scratch now. Thanks to long sessions of healing with Katara, his own scars look much the same, like a small mountain range of ridges and lines across his otherwise smooth skin. He shrugs. Most of the time it feels like it has ended. When they're not dealing with board meetings, the four of them screw around on the outskirts of the village, Aang practicing with Toph and Katara while Sokka sits with Momo and Appa, sharpens his machete, and makes sarcastic quips until one of them knocks him off his seat. Just like old times. Most of the time, the only indication that anything ever happened is the montage of ugly scars that he prefers to keep out of sight.
"I like to think so. I mean, I guess it'll always be there, but sort of in the background," he says in response, casting his gaze towards the moon. "Those kinds of memories don't just go away."
"We can talk about it, at least."
Usually Sokka can't make it very far past that first meeting with his interrogator before he needs to stop talking. He's only relayed the entire story twice, once to Aang and Piandao and once to his father, who had sat somberly before him with his fingers clenched together. When he'd tried to tell Katara the first time, she'd had to stop him so she could keep her lunch down. The second time, he had been the one to end the conversation. Toph was a little better at storytelling than he, anyway, and what she had experienced was enough to satisfy the usual enquirers, to answer their questions. When it came right down to it, the only things that had changed after their experience was them; the war had been largely unaffected.
Toph shifts at his poignant silence, raising her head from his shoulder and cocking it slightly in his direction, listening.
"You all right, Sokka? Is it that dream again?"
"No, I'm okay. What about you?"
"Better now." She squeezes his hand. "A little better than I was ten minutes ago, and a whole lot better than I was a year ago."
Now Sokka does the only thing that feels like the right thing to do. He turns his head to Toph, rests his free hand on her shoulder, and places a kiss on the side of her temple. In turn, Toph swivels around on her seat with raised eyebrows.
"What was that for?" she asks, baffled and leaning away from him an extra inch or so, as if afraid that he's going to try again.
Sokka can't stop a smirk from reaching his lips. "I'm not sure yet. It just felt like the right thing to do."
The color rises to her face, but she's smiling nonetheless. She lets go of his hand to punch him in the shoulder, and by the time she does he's already begun to howl with laughter.
"You're such a meathead," Toph mumbles, trying to hide her smile behind an affectionate scowl.
Sokka drapes his arm around her shoulder and pulls her closer to him once more. Toph shakes her head and rests her temple against his shoulder.
Some things don't change, he supposes as he wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. Through the ordeal they've managed to salvage what was left of their characters and piece it back together, together. Other things—well, sometimes it's not so much a change as it is an adjustment.
What's happened to us? She'd asked him, not so long ago.
Even now he doesn't know, but his fear of the future has begun to fade, as sure as the memories that blend together in the back of his mind. Sokka looks down at their interlaced fingers, and they sigh together.
- - -
A/n: I hope you enjoyed this story. Thanks to Capt-BA for betaing, and thanks to YOU for reading! :)