A/n: This is the end of the road, my friends! Thanks for getting this far. :D
Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no profit.
Bruise, Part 2
"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it." - George Moore
Sokka made it exactly two days. The first day he spent in bed and wandering around the empty apartment like a lost child. On the second day he returned to the government building on the outskirts of the palace, where he was welcomed back to work by the Council of Five and other officials who wasted no time in depositing a monstrous pile of work on his desk. At dawn on the third day, Sokka sent a messenger hawk to his employers and hopped on the first train to Republic City.
At the start of the Harmony Restoration Movement, when Republic City was still the melting pot colony of Yu Dao, the post-war economy and overabundance of ex-soldiers looking for work prompted a massive railway project. Within a few years, and with the cooperation of all manner of citizens, they had built a train line connecting the major Earth Kingdom cities. With rails running from Ba Sing Se Central Station to Republic City, Omashu, and a handful of other places, one could cut their commute down by more than half the time. The trains, which Sokka had originally helped to design, were modeled after the Fire Nation steam engines to make a bumpy but efficient transportation system.
A recollection of several long seasons of manual work flitted over Sokka's mind as he scooted through the crowded train corridor in search of a seat. Only after passing through multiple cars, sidestepping overwhelmed couples with screaming children, did he find an empty compartment by the caboose. He slipped inside, locking the door behind him and tossing his bag and sword on the floor. The ride from Ba Sing Se to Republic City took just over a full day.
For the first part of the trip Sokka kept to the compartment, draping himself over the lumpy seats in an effort to regain some of his lost sleep. Failing this, he dug some reading out of his bag, but he was too riled up to focus on ancient architecture and the lurching of the train along its tracks soon made him sick. Eventually he wound up at the bar. There he ordered a meat sandwich and chatted with the other patrons, most of whom were traveling on business. His one drink turned into two, and then three when someone recognized him and insisted on buying him another. By the time he tromped back to his compartment, dizzy from the booze and tripping from the train, he was subdued enough to fall asleep.
Sokka awoke to screeching breaks, a signal that the train had arrived at the Republic City station. He leapt up in alarm, slinging his bag and sword into their rightful places. He had slept for almost twelve hours thanks to his overindulgence, and the sun's place in the sky announced that it was almost mid day. Quickly Sokka washed up, brushed his teeth, and joined the other passengers on their disembarkment.
Ordinarily Sokka would have allowed himself a leisurely walk to admire the booming growth of Republic City, but being so close to the end of his journey had brought his unease back in full force. Three days had passed and still he hadn't figured out what to say to Toph, his best friend who may or may not understand how he was feeling. Every possible statement sounded dry and forced in his head—Hey Toph, I hope you don't mind, but I think I love you. Would it be okay if I just stuck around for a while, like… forever, maybe? No pressure, obviously.
Sokka groaned and shook his head. For someone who had casually interacted Toph only a few days before, he was sufficiently distraught by the time he reached the doorstep of her Metalbending academy. He forced himself to take a few breaths, readjusted the belt of his tunic, and entered.
He had been through the grand arch of the entrance so many times that his feet carried him without hesitation to the main dojo. Upon crossing into the room, however, Sokka realized that something was wrong. Toph's squad of elite students was lined up in rows with their backs to him, practicing forms while the instructor bellowed directions. The voice, though, was not Toph's confident and feisty tone, but rather Penga's sweet loft.
"Sokka?" said Penga, spotting him from across the room.
All heads turned to face the warrior, who was once again dumbfounded out of words. The students dropped their forms and began whispering excitedly. Sokka blinked hard and looked around, as if Toph might be hiding behind the tall window's curtain. The surprise emanating from the students and their instructor was not a good sign.
"Sorry to interrupt, I was… Where's Toph?" Sokka said.
"I thought she was with you," said Penga. "She took a train back to Ba Sing Se yesterday morning and left me in charge."
"Did she say when she'd be back?"
Penga shook her head. She bore very little resemblance to the little girl Sokka had helped to train all those years ago. Now a fully realized master, she stood with straight-backed confidence despite her obvious bewilderment.
"She put me in charge 'indefinitely'," said Penga. "It must have been important—we threw her a welcome back party, but she left right at the beginning. Said she forgot to do something. And she didn't even eat any cake!"
Sokka scratched his chin. "Hmm… sounds pretty serious."
"I know! Toph loves cake!" Penga opened her mouth to go on, but stopped mid-breath. Sokka had already turned and started for the door. "Wait, where are you going?"
"If she comes back again, tell her to stay put," Sokka called over his shoulder.
If he was right, she was just arriving at his empty apartment. He hoped she would go to the government building, where his equally nonplussed employers might still be pouring over his hasty note—Sorry to return and run, but I'm going to Republic City. It's an emergency. I'll be back soon to take care of some things. Looking back, Sokka felt a mild embarrassment for having left so soon, and without anything more than a cryptic explanation. Once Toph heard it, though, hopefully she would understand. Hopefully she would still be there. He contemplated sending a messenger hawk to his coworkers so they could stop her, but his instincts overruled this thought, urging him to get home as soon as possible; if she, like him, had already turned around, the message would never make it.
The full epiphany didn't hit him until he had jogged halfway to the train station.
One of the factors leading up to Sokka and Suki calling it quits—if not the biggest factor—was the distance. It had been a situation, where after months and years of travel, the time finally came to settle down. They had struggled to maintain their long-term relationship, seeking the day when they could finally have some peace, only to find that when the time came, Suki wanted to live on Kyoshi Island and Sokka didn't. He was unwilling to stay, she unwilling to leave. So the constant to-and-fro became a mantra that neither wanted to continue. When they were apart, they missed the other terribly—so much that, when they were together, they became distracted and lethargic. At no point in their relationship did one chase after the other; neither of them had been willing to make that sacrifice. But Toph had gotten all the way home, stayed for one day, and turned back to the city she hated most in the entire world.
Sokka didn't want to hope, yet hope had already diffused through his system, hastening his pace. A strange elation mingled with the ever-present apprehension. It carried him to the station, onto the train, and through the second day-long trip across the country. He arrived at his apartment the next afternoon, sore and tired from his travels but brimming with wary energy. Hastily he ran up the front steps, fumbled with his keys, turned the lock, and stepped inside.
The apartment was empty. Sokka had never felt so disappointed. After scouring the house for any minute sign of her presence, he went back to the foyer and lay down on the floor. Once again, his instincts had proven themselves faulty.
A pillar of sunlight shone in through the window, pooling warmth across his ankles. Sokka took a long, slow breath. All through the winter the sunlight broke across his shoulders like a cold wave. Just weeks ago he had been sprawled across the ground for two hours in the woods, the sun blinding him with the snow's reflection. With bitter cold spreading up his limbs, Sokka had waited and scorned his weakness, the extent of his injury.
But today was the first taste of spring, with the sun sharing its heat for the first time. He wandered to a different place than this painful memory, to the summers spent with his family after the war. While Aang and Katara splashed around in the ocean, he and Toph would stretch out across the sand until their skin was stiff with sunburn. If he lay still enough, he could feel the ocean breeze skittering sand across his arms and chest. Sokka could only ever take the heat for a limited time before he, too, ran off to the water. But Toph could lay there forever. The whole earth thrummed with the sun's energy, she told him once. She loved to soak it all up, like a nutrient straight to her blood. On a day like today, after weeks of cold earth, he could imagine her sprawled out across the caked earth—
Sokka snapped to attention, leaping to his feet like a solider waking to an explosion. His bad knee groaned beneath the sudden pressure but he ignored it, darting off to the kitchen window. He hoisted himself up on the counter to get a clear view of the ground directly below. When he saw a splotch of green on the withered grass, he nearly fell backward onto the floor.
Toph was upright by the time Sokka stumbled down the back steps. She sat cross-legged and smirking on the ground.
"I heard you took a little joy ride to my school," she said. "Did you notice the new curtains? They're velvet, very soft."
Sokka made it within a few feet of her before he stopped again. A thin sweat had spread over his palms. Absently he wiped it away on the sides of his pants, too overwhelmed by the sight of her to think of much else. Still he had no explanation, no speech to make his actions seem thought out. Toph didn't seem to mind. She stood up, the tiny smile tugging downward as she sensed the tenseness of his posture.
"Toph, I can't do this," Sokka blurted out, and cut over her when she opened her mouth to protest. "I tried, but I just felt like… after already losing you once… "
Sokka shook his head, held his arms wide in defeat, and let them fall back to his sides. "I need you, in my life. Always, if possible."
Toph's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Simple as that, huh? I thought you were confused."
"I was. I knew how I felt—or I was figuring it out—but we've always been friends, and we live in different cities, and I didn't know if it was okay."
"And now it's okay?"
Sokka shrugged. "I don't really care if it's okay. It is what it is, right?"
Toph dropped her head, digging the heel of one foot into the ground. Sokka watched the dust settle around her ankles and coat the layer of earth on her feet even thicker.
When she spoke, it was in a demure confession's tone. "I'm sorry this had to be so complicated," said Toph. "I walked away because I didn't understand how you could be confused. But sometimes I forget... Just because I've never been confused doesn't mean you couldn't be."
Sokka stood there, suddenly aware that his and Toph's faces had tinged a matching shade of scarlet. He would have thought them beyond blushing at this point in their relationship, and honestly felt a bit silly when he compared this moment—what should have been the picturesque image of romance—to the others that they had faced together (namely battle, death, and bringing each other back to life). These last long weeks had drained him of whatever composure he possessed. He was not the suave gentleman that he had always imagined, and the struggle had left him helplessly battered. But if Toph's words were true, then it was good enough. Sokka, standing humbly before her with his heart running over and his eyes blinking back tears, was good enough.
They moved simultaneously forward to the center of the gap, and hugged with such force that Sokka thought his ribs might re-break. Toph's head pressed into the dip of his shoulder, her fingers clutching to the back of his tunic. When they finally parted, Sokka breathed easy for the first time in weeks. The unease and insecurity had been squeezed out like dirt from a wound, like a stubborn sliver from the fingers. What remained, he mused as Toph clasped her hands together and dug one heel into the dirt, was almost exactly what they had been before. Almost.
"So what do we do now?" he said.
"Luckily, we have options. We could go to the market for groceries, and then you can help me write a letter to send for my stuff. Or we could pack your bags and take the noon train to Republic City."
The first part of Toph's statement baffled Sokka so profoundly that he almost missed the latter portion. He had to spend several moments processing the insinuations of the suggestion—that she would uproot her entire life, leave her school and students, all for what? It was one of the most ludicrous ideas Sokka had ever heard, so much that he completely lost his words and had to waste several seconds on returning to his body. He cleared his throat, rubbed his eyes, shook his head.
"You... would live here?" Sokka pointed to the ground in disbelief, as if Toph could not have possibly been talking about this spot. "You hate Ba Sing Se!"
Toph shrugged, unmoved by his tangible incredulity. "If that's what it takes."
Sokka couldn't stop the laugh from rising up in his throat, nor could he keep himself from throwing his arms around her again. Toph tensed at the abrupt gesture, and was just coming around when Sokka pulled back, seized the collar of her tunic, and kissed her. Toph gasped when he let go, swerving on the spot and grabbing on to his arm for balance.
"Let's compromise," said Sokka.
Toph's eyes were wide, one hand pressed to the side of her head to keep it from spinning. "I'm listening," she managed.
"Okay, here's the plan. We go to the market, but only to get some dinner."
"And snacks!" Toph interjected after recollecting herself. She casually set her hands on his hips, not bothering to hide a smirk as he returned the gesture. "If we're staying the night, I'm going to need some snacks. There's nothing here but rice and stale beef jerky."
"Ah, right, good idea. Then tomorrow morning, we can go to the government building to work something out with the Council. And then we go to Republic City."
Toph chuckled under her breath. "You mean you don't want to live here?"
"I want to live wherever you want to live. If that's okay."
He waited in the following silence for her response. Standing here in the quiet yard, they seemed to be starting over. The weeks of aching loss and gnarly wounds had finally passed, and though the memories would only fade in time—catching them in the middle of the night, tightening around their necks like a clawed hand—time, for once, felt like something better than a condemnation.
Slowly, with a clinical expression, Toph raised her hands and held his face between them. She wandered down from his forehead, tracing the long line of his scar. Her thumbs smoothed over his eyebrows, over the tip of his nose. He caught the underside of her wrist with his lips as she moved along the contour of his jaw. Only when she had hooked his ears into the J of her forefinger and thumb did she finally smile.
"You know what?" said Toph, as Sokka took her hand and pressed a kiss into her palm. "I think we're gonna make it."
A/n: We made it! Congrats, and thank you all for sticking with me.
Thanks for Snowy (Snows-Of-Yester-Year) for the prompt beta work!
Thanks again to the wonderful folks who reviewed this story: The anons, CalleighB, Kichigai Hi, itshardtostealfatkids, wherewulf, guyw1tn0nam3, tomboy 26, Katsumara, Cadens Stella, jasminedragons, Sapphire Leo, somebody's world, Enna Moon, Lord Momo, Snows-Of-Yester-Year, Shyguy1, koolmcr, korralicious, and Daughter of the Stars. All of you, I just—you made struggling through this story worth it. Thank you so much for your kindness, your patience, and your enthusiasm. It means more than you know.