Well, this is awkward.
I know it's been like a decade since I've updated, but I have my reasons. Ones you probably don't care about, so I won't drone on about them. What I will say is that I will try to update as much as I can, I promise.
Chapter Fourteen: Crossroads of Destiny
Sokka has kept the same expression on his face ever since Aang dropped us off a little while away from the lake where the fleet of water tribe ships is docked. More importantly, where Sokka's dad is. While I would anticipate him to be beaming with delight about the fact that he's only a few minutes away from seeing the father he hasn't seen in years, he's doing the complete opposite. He has a troubled frown on his face, and he's silent, which is very unlike him.
"Hey," I say, and grab his arm to stop him from our walking. "What's up with you?"
Casting his eyes down, he mumbles, "Nothing."
"Don't give me that. Look at me." When he doesn't, I cup his face in my hands and make him do so. "Why aren't you blabbering endlessly about how excited you are to see your dad? You were so pumped while we were flying, why aren't you acting like you are now?"
He sighs, taking my hands from his face and intertwining them with his between us. "Guess I'm just nervous. Of course I'm excited, but right now all I feel like doing is barfing up the fried duck I ate for breakfast."
"Nervous? It's your dad. Why on earth are you nervous?"
"Kaiko, I haven't seen him in over five years. What do I say? What do I do? What if I do everything wrong?"
"Sokka, nothing you can say or so will make this reunion any less special for either of you," I say. "The only thing you could do wrong right now is continue to burden yourself with these ridiculous notions that are only succeeding in upsetting you during a time when you should be happy." Pecking his lips, I smile reassuringly. "Now, are we going to stand here forever, or are we going to go see your dad?"
Finally, his worried expression vanishes and is replaced with a soft smile. "Words can't describe how much I've missed you," he says, and then tugs me forward. "Come on, let's go."
So we do. We stroll wordlessly toward the assembled campsite next to where the water tribe ships are docked by the shore. A fair amount of men are crowded around the tents, some conversing with a bowl in their hands and others huddled around large pots that incessantly steam. I can feel Sokka tense with each step we make closer to them; he's practically as stiff as a rock when we approach and everyone looks up.
It's quiet at first, a silence that seems to drone on, until grins break across the men's faces. Plenty of them come to greet Sokka with handshakes and friendly pats on the back. One guy even gives him a playfully rub on the head. Relief trickles through me as I notice Sokka relax slightly, grinning at all of them, too. They gesture to the largest tent at the very end of them all, evidently where Sokka's father probably is, and with an encouraging squeeze of his hand, I walk with him toward it.
We push past the entrance of the tent. In front of us is a group of water tribe men surrounding a map on the floor. At the end of the map is a man who resembles Sokka incredibly, only much older, of course, and next to him is Bato. Bato looks up first, smiles, and then nudges the man, who I have gathered must be Sokka's father, Hakoda. Hakoda raises his eyes and when they land on Sokka, he perks up in surprise. Soon after, a smile so endearing that it warms my heart spreads across his face, and he says, "Sokka."
"Hi, dad," Sokka breathes. Within only a couple seconds, Hakoda gets to his feet and takes only a few strides to reach his son. When he does, they unhesitatingly embrace each other. It's one of the sweetest sights I've ever seen, and I'm more than glad that Sokka's a part of it.
A hand is rested on my shoulder. I glance up to see that it's Bato's. "Hello, Kaiko. It's good to see you," he greets kindly.
"Good to see you, too, Bato," I say.
"Kaiko?" Both of us look over when Hakoda say my name in an inquiring tone. He's unsettlingly eying me with a frown. I don't want to admit it to myself, but the emotion on his face can only be described as suspicion.
"Oh, yeah!" Sokka, clearly oblivious of his dad's suddenly perplexing change of mood, circles his arm around my waist. "Kaiko, this is my dad. Dad, this is Kaiko. My girlfriend."
Hakoda doesn't say anything at first, just keeps on scrutinizing me with his forehead scrunched together. It makes me feel very uncomfortable, and I instinctively cuddle closer to Sokka's side. Then, suddenly, his eyes flicker to my neck where the necklace Uncle gave me dangles. His eyes grow wide with alarm, and that's when I realize that my necklace is the only thing I have left on me that's Fire Nation. And Hakoda is not happy about it.
"How dare you," he hisses, and before I know it he's grabbing my neck and pinning me against the tent wall. Pain spikes in my throat from his ruthlessly tight grip. I choke for air. "What's your plan, huh? Manipulate my son into trusting you so then he'd take you here? Spying for your precious nation, are you, Princess Kaiko of the Fire Nation? Figures scum like you would resort to seducing an innocent boy as a war technique." He tightens his hand around my neck even more, and I begin to see spots in my vision.
"Dad!" Sokka cries, and hurries over to shove him away. Fortunately, Sokka's strong enough, and Hakoda drops me to the ground. Coughing, I gingerly hold my neck as I take in ragged gulps of air. "What has gotten into you?" Sokka shouts, looking at his dad with anger and astonishment.
"She's the princess of the Fire Nation, Sokka! How could you bring her here? How could you even associate yourself with her?"
"She's not like them! She abandoned her family just to come with me and Katara to help the Avatar," Sokka says, then kneels down next to me. "Have you not heard of it? Even Bato knew when we ran into him a while ago!"
"It's true, Hakoda," Bato says, looking very caught off guard. "She's on our side."
Hakoda looks from Bato, to me, to Sokka. "But… She's Fire Nation. She's the enemy."
"No, she's not," Sokka says, and then looks down at me. Still catching my breath, I meet his eyes. "She's the purest, most selfless human being I've ever met. Just because she happened to be born into the nation we're at war with, does not mean she's part of what they're doing."
It's silent; the only sound is my harsh breathing. I feel tears burn behind my eyes. Out of all the times I've been accused of being a part of my nation's devastation, out of every single time I've been instantly hated just because of my heritage, what just happened a moment ago hurt the most. Sokka's father, the man I wanted more than anything to make a good first impression on, just attacked and glared at me with the most hateful look I've ever seen. More than ever before, I wish I was anyone but the princess of the Fire Nation.
Sokka holds my face in his hands. "Are you okay?" he asks worriedly, stroking my cheek with his thumb. I only nod, unable to find my voice. He helps me get to my feet, and once we're standing, he sends a glare in the direction of his father. "I've always looked up to you, you know. Always admired you for every decision you made. But right now, I can honestly say I'm ashamed to call you my father."
After Sokka's words, Hakoda's face etches with pain. Sokka takes my hand and storms out of the tent, but I stop him when we're a few feet away. "Sokka, stop," I say, and pull my hand away.
He does and looks at me. His eyes are blazing with anger. Within in that anger, however, is a deep betrayal. "Why? I don't want to be around him. I won't be."
"Yes, you will." Stepping up to him, I place my hands on his chest. "Listen, your dad didn't know. He was only trying to protect you."
"How can you defend him? He hurt you! He accused you of… of seducing and manipulating me. Don't rationalize it. What he did is unforgivable."
"Sokka," I sigh. "He's your father. You can't hate him for one mistake. If you just go talk to him, I'm sure he'll apologize."
"She's right, Sokka." Sokka jerks his head up, and I turn around. Bato and Hakoda are standing outside the entrance of the tent. Both Hakoda's voice and expression hold regret, along with sadness. "I do apologize. Bato explained and I understand. What I did was impulsive and wrong. It's just… You know how I feel about the Fire Nation, Sokka. Because of them the love of my life isn't around anymore. It's difficult for me to trust anyone involved with them."
"Don't apologize to me," Sokka snaps. "Apologize to Kaiko."
"Sokka, it's fine—, " I begin, but I'm cut off.
"No, it's not fine," Hakoda says, and bows his head. "I feel a great remorse for hurting you, Kaiko, and I'm very sorry."
Pursing my lips, I nod. "I forgive you. It's not like it hasn't happened before," I say sincerely, and then nudge Sokka. "You do, too, right, Sokka?"
He doesn't speak; he continues to look at his father. Not in an enraged way like he had only merely seconds ago, but not in a forgiving way either. It's more of an understanding, I assume, more than anything else. "I love her, dad. And I need you to accept the fact that it will never change," is what he ends up saying.
Hakoda deliberates before slowly smiling. "My son, in love." He elbows Bato in the ribs. "Never thought we'd see the day, did we, Bato?"
They laugh together, and I'm relieved when I see a genuine smile snake its way across Sokka's face as he watches them. Encouragingly, I motion for him to go join them. He hesitates and gazes down at me like he's indecisive about leaving me alone or not. I just roll my eyes and shove him towards them. He mouths, "I love you," before stalking over to his father and Bato, who mirthfully clap him on the back and make playful jabs in his direction. They say some things I can't make out, things that make them all laugh aloud, and I smile.
Deep inside, though, the image of my potential, future father-in-law pinning my up against a wall and choking me stays unyielding in my mind.
It's been two days since Sokka and I have arrived to the campsite of where his father, Hakoda, is. Two days since Sokka and his dad were gleefully reunited.
Two says since Hakoda deliberately threw up against a wall and almost killed me.
It's gotten significantly better between Hakoda and I. Fortunately, he's grown to like me, despite me anticipating the exact opposite. I've been fearful that he'd always regard me with distrust and resentment, but after his honest apology, he's done what seems like his best to make things comfortable and right with me, including telling me stories of past times with Sokka, sharing water tribe secrets, and asking of stories of my own. It's diminished the distress from our first encounter, and he and I have become rather friendly with each other. After all, he shares plenty of Sokka's personality attributes, so it's been easy to get along with him.
The foremost part of this trip has unarguably been seeing Sokka so happy. Before we came here, I knew he loved his father with all of his being, but witnessing it for myself has clear up any possible suspicion completely. They've spent practically every moment with each other—catching up, reminiscing, cracking the kind of jokes only they tend to find funny. Sokka has always been ordinarily at peace, however not this much. I've hardly seen him without a grin these past couple days.
Moments ago, the water tribe scouts had spotted four Fire Nation ships. Everyone instantly transformed into battle mode, including Hakoda, who took charge like any leader should. Sokka will be joining them, to my discomfort, and even though I put up a fair argument, Sokka refuses to let me tag along on the ships and insists I stay at the camp sight. I reluctantly agreed, but only because I wouldn't want Sokka to be in that type of danger while having to worry about me, too.
I stare at myself in the mirror that's leant up against the wall of the tent Sokka and I are temporarily using while we stay. Solemnly, I lift my shirt up halfway, revealing my stomach. The bruises are almost gone, as faded as shadows now, but the scars will never disappear—they're permanent. The most brutal one stretches from my bellybutton, all around my left side, until it finally ends near the small of my back. That's from one of Long Feng's more furious visits. Daringly, I had spit on his shoes, and in return he whipped out a blade and cut my side. At the time, I wished he'd let me bleed to death because of how much I wished to die rather than continue the agonizing torture. But of course he hadn't. He'd let me bleed enough that I was left pitifully weak, then he had someone wrap it up. I couldn't have taken the bandage off; I was too weak.
I squeeze my eyes shut when tears begin to well up. I hate crying over the memories. It makes me feel weak and worthless, just like I had while I was in that prison cell. And ever since then I've avoided those two feelings as much as possible. Vulnerability isn't an option for me anymore—not after what happened. Staying strong, or at least seeming strong to everyone around me, is what will keep me sane.
A startled gasp escapes my throat when warm hands are suddenly resting on my naked sides, and horrible images of Dai Li agents ruthlessly grabbing me flash in my mind. Instinctively, my elbow jabs into the body behind me. My mind doesn't process the fact that I'm not in the Ba Sing Se prison until I hear a familiar grunt and turn around to see that it was Sokka touching me, not a Dai Li agent. Not Long Feng.
"Oh, Sokka! I'm so sorry!" I cry, and hurry over to his hunched over form. "I-I didn't know it was you. I was… caught off guard."
He lets out a breathless laugh and straitens up, still holding the area on his stomach where I hit him. "That's going to hurt tomorrow morning," he says, a small smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. "When did you become so much stronger?"
Facing the mirror again, I smooth my shirt down. "After I realized my lack of strength could cost me my life."
Glancing into the mirror, I see any hint of amusement erase from his face. Wordlessly, he comes up behind me and, before I can protest, reveals my torso again. He stares at my scars with an unsettlingly emotionless expression, but his jaw is locked tight. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I avert my eyes away from our reflection in the mirror and to the floor. Softly, almost to the point that they're only hovering, he places his hands over my sides like he had before.
"These don't make you any less beautiful, if that's what you're wondering," he murmurs in my ear, his chin resting in the crook of my neck.
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
"No," he says, and removes one his hands from my sides to gently hold my chin up so I'm compelled to look at myself in the mirror. "These scars are proof that you went through something unbelievably terrible. And not just that; they're proof that, yeah, you went through it, but you survived it, too. You didn't give up, and you found your way back to safety. To me." He traces one of the faded bruises. "And that is what makes you even more beautiful than before."
As he spoke, I couldn't keep myself from crying like I have been recently. So I don't bother wiping the tears away as I twist in his arms and crush my lips to his. "I love you," I whisper once we pull away. "There won't be enough time in any lifetime for me to say that enough."
He grins. "Probably not. But I can settle with every second of every day if that's what it comes down to."
I laugh and then teasingly proceed to quickly say it over and over again. He shuts me up by kissing me—which, of course, I don't object to.
We're just about to leave the tent when Hakoda swipes the curtain aside and pops his head in. "Sokka, Kaiko," he begins, "someone's here for you."
Confusion shoots through me. Sokka and I share perplexed glimpses before following Hakoda outside. My eyes widen and I stop immediately in my tracks. On Appa, is Aang, right in front of us. He's not smiling as a welcome; not cheerfully asking how we've been like Aang would do in normal circumstances. The moment we step out, he looks down at us with one of the most urgently anguished expressions I've ever seen on him. He doesn't need to say anything for me to know something's terribly wrong.
"This can't be good news," Sokka says, his voice concerned.
Ten minutes later, we're soaring off on Appa into the night sky. Aang had summarized everything within a minute. With the guru, he had a vision that Karara was in trouble, restricted with chains while yelling out for help. He instantaneously came to get us, and now we're headed back to Ba Sing Se to save her from whatever it is she needs to be saved from. The possibilities plague my thoughts, and I do my best to shove them aside.
Sokka turns to stare back at the campsite, at his father. A sad, longing frown comes across his face. I place a hand on his shoulder, and when he meets my gaze, I give him the most soothing smile I can muster. It can't be enough to diminish him of the pain of having to leave his father again, I know, but it's all I can do. Hopefully that's enough.
And I think it is, because he smiles back—sadly, yes, but it's still a smile—and pulls me into his arms. Cuddling my back into his chest, I lean my head back and place a soft kiss on his jawline. His eyes slip closed and we drift into a silence. After all, I'm sure some peace and quiet is what we all need with what is bound to happen in the next few hours.
It's pretty short, I know, but I wanted to give you guys something before I dig into the last chapter of Book Two. Again, I apologize deeply for the immense time period I made you guys wait, and I'll devote to writing more and as frequently as possible. Love you guys!