"Do you ever think about the war, Sokka?"
It isn't surprising that she had sensed his approach; it is surprising that she would ask that question. He sits down next to her on the low stone bench that's still warm from the day's strong sunlight and rubs thoughtfully at his chin. The gentle breeze shifts, and all the sudden Sokka can once again faintly hear the music coming from inside the ballroom.
The itchiness of his tunic in this summer heat is distracting, and it's certainly not making it any easier to put his answer to Toph's question into words. Not any more. Only when reminded.
All the time.
Finally, he just shrugs. "I try not to."
Toph nods absentmindedly and frowns a bit in concentration, her lips tense but refusing to betray the specifics of her thoughts. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands and lets out an annoyed puff of breath.
Seeing Toph in a pensive mood is weird. Sokka attributes it to the drinks, the exhaustion, and this gathering of people who haven't all been together in years. But he'd really rather avoid a punch in the arm, so instead of asking whether she's okay, he ignores the uncomfortable prickle of sweat on the nape of his neck and says, "So what're you doing out here, anyway? You missed Aang stepping on Katara's dress and ripping the hem."
Toph leans back and a smile begins to loosen the unhappiness in her face. Sokka knows he has her attention hooked. "It made the most amazing sound, you could hear it through the whole hall! And then—no, wait for it—Aang turns around, looking like he wants to jump on Appa and head for the North Pole or something, and he smacks right into Ambassador Wen and knocks her on the floor. It was classic!"
Toph is laughing in earnest now and reaches up to wipe a tear from her eye. "Oh man, the ambassador must have been thrilled."
"She'll probably never wash that gown again! 'Oh, Avatar Aang, I am so, so sorry, but may I say what a complete honor this is—' See what you miss when you leave the party?"
Toph's chuckles and grin slowly fade, and she waves a hand dismissively. "Yeah, yeah. It was just—there's a lot going on in there. The vibrations from the music and everyone dancing and everyone talking... And it's so hot with all of those people..." Her voice grows softer, and she pauses as if listening for a moment to make sure that they are truly alone. Her bangs are hiding her eyes, like always, and she's fiddling with the sash of her dress.
"That's what does it for me, Sokka. Every summer feels like that summer. All close and urgent and desperate. But it's over, and it was necessary, and we won... so I just wish I could sit outside and not remember the things I do."
She seems thoughtful, not scared, but the frown is back on her face, and this time there's a matching one on Sokka's. He knows Toph is steady and solid and hates to dwell on things that can't be helped, but now they're both remembering air so hot it burned their throats, screeching metal that was indistinguishable from human screams, and frantic, sweaty grips. So he reaches out and takes her hand in his, and it's an unspeakable relief to be able to do this thing without the threat of death hanging over them both.
The title comes from part of a poem by William Ernest Henley:
Here is the ghost
Of a summer that lived for us,
Here is a promise
Of summers to be.