"Final stop! Republic City!" the porter's voice cried out, jolting Lin awake.
Lin's head popped up from her mother's lap so suddenly that she nearly banged Toph's chin. It was close enough for her mother to feel the breeze of it and Toph gasped, "Careful there, baby girl."
"Sounds like it," Toph nodded, standing.
Lin rubbed her eyes and stretched, catching the setting sun as it glinted through the station windows.
It was dusk, Monday evening rush hour was just taking hold and the station was alive with commuters all bustling about with different destinations in mind. In this moment, seeing all the people in their smart hats and tailored clothing, babbling on in their Republic City slang, Lin wondered why they would want to be headed anywhere else.
"It's good to be home," she sighed, pulling her bag from its compartment.
"It's good to be anywhere that isn't Ba Sing Se," Toph specified, following her daughter out of their car and onto the platform.
The two women made their way through the crowd and out onto the busy street, "Should we take a cab?"
"Let's walk," Toph insisted, "I need to stretch my legs…and it'll give us time to talk."
"We've been on a train together for a day and a half," Lin pointed out and Toph's head went back with a quick laugh.
"You slept the whole time, deadbeat."
Lin gave her mother a sideways glance, "Not the whole time."
It was a relief to be joking, to have this easiness back. It wasn't a sure thing just yet and when Lin looked at the ground to consider this, the dull throbbing in her cheek reminded her that the ramifications of this whole ordeal wouldn't disappear overnight.
Her hand went up, brushing across her cheekbone gently, "Are you still mad at me?"
Toph shrugged, "A little."
They walked in silence for a moment until Lin shored up the courage to ask, "what about Sokka?"
"He's not mad at you. He can never stay mad at you."
The faintest smile crossed Lin's face, "I thought about him a lot while I was in Ba Sing Se."
"Wow! All 48 hours?"
Lin bumped her mother's shoulder with a scoff, "Mother...I'm serious."
She continued, "my Dad- I mean…my biological father- he doesn't really care for Sokka."
"Yeah, I know," Toph nodded.
Lin drew a breath, "Has Sokka ever told you he wants me to call him Dad?"
Toph's lips pursed, wiggling back and forth in thought, "Not in so many words."
"Well, I'm going to," Lin resolved, "He is my Dad. Always has been."
Toph grinned, throwing one arm out to rest along Lin's shoulders. She pulled her in quick, kissing her cheek, "I'm sorry you had to learn it the hard way, kiddo. "
"Me too," Lin agreed quietly and Toph jostled her slightly, tossing her hair with quick fingers before releasing her again.
"Well, it's a Beifong family tradition- falling out with your parents. You're official now. Same, same."
A breathy laugh escaped Lin, "Same, same," she agreed.
"Look what the Chief dragged in!" Toph announced as she pushed the front door of their home open. Lin rolled her eyes, following her mother inside.
There was no reply and Toph sighed and added in a whisper, "Ah, first day back in session. He's snoozing. Figures."
From the doorway Lin could see Sokka on the couch, head down and dozing peacefully. A few papers were scattered along the floor before him. She smiled to herself, amused at his ability to nod off in the middle of anything.
Toph passed him quietly, making her way to the kitchen lightly, "You hungry, Lin?" she asked in a loud whisper.
"Good, then get in here and cook something."
It was almost as if she'd never left. Lin shrugged her jacket off, slipping out of her shoes as well. Her feet met the familiar stone flooring of home with relief. Lin took a breath, appreciating the sensations of home fully for the first time since she was a little girl.
She felt a thumping heart. Rhythmic and reassuring. It was her mother, padding around in the kitchen.
Then, her eyes opened and her breath caught.
It was the only thing she felt.
Lin looked at the floor. Her eyes travelled from her own feet to Sokka's, which were settled flat against the stone tiles.
Slowly, she made her way to him. Fear crept into the edges of her mind, soaking into her veins like a sponge. Her heart raced until it filled her ears with its thrumming, drowning out the only other heartbeat in the house.
"Sokka?" she asked quietly from just behind him.
He didn't stir.
"Sokka?" she asked again, a bit louder, more urgent.
Panic surrounded her, filling up her lungs until she choked on it.
Swallowing, she rounded him finally, meeting a blank expression. His eyes lay open, his face pale. She reached out one hand to touch his arm and when her nerves registered the iciness of his skin she let out a strangled shriek. Bile rose in her throat.
In the cacophony of her panic she could barely make out Toph's voice, "You okay?" She sounded far away, buried deep, barely audible.
Lin screeched again when she felt her mother's hand grip her bicep, "What are you screaming about?"
Lin turned to find her mother was already solving the mystery of her wailing. Toph's blank eyes were trained on the floor, inches away from Sokka's feet.
"Mom…." Lin began, voice shaking.
Toph's grip on Lin's arm tightened.
Lin squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that when she opened them again Sokka would be laughing at her. But her eyes opened and his vacant stare remained.
Toph's hand released her. Tears were already cascading down her face though her expression was still. She reached forward, pushing against Sokka's arm once, "Wake up, Meathead."
Lin watched in horror as her mother shoved him again, "Baby, wake up," Toph ordered. Toph sank to her knees, reaching out to grip the lapels of his shirt with her small fists, "Sokka! Wake up. Please," she begged, a sob finally overtaking her.
Lin stepped back, covering her mouth with her hands as she watched her mother attempt to rouse a man whose eyes were wide open.
Toph's small fist curled around the fabric of his tunic, twisting it with purpose. "Sokka, please," she continued to plead as tears spilled from her eyes, "please, no."
Her head hung forward, resting against his knee as her body was wracked with sobs.
"Call Katara!" She finally shouted after what felt like an eternity to Lin.
Toph turned on her quickly, never letting go of Sokka's shirt, "FUCKING CALL HER NOW."
"Mom," Lin warned, voice timid, "There's nothing she can do."
"I SAID FUCKING CALL HER!"
Toph's face was flushed red, her eyes swollen. Lin watched her in silence for a moment before carefully taking a step forward. Her shaking hands reached out to cover her mother's, slowly moving them away from Sokka's tunic.
Toph released him reluctantly. The break in contact was all it took to reduce her to a sobbing heap on the floor. Lin stood by, watching helplessly as her mother fell apart at her feet. If it had been less surreal she would have been unnerved to see her mother like this, choking out entreaties between gasping breaths, begging the universe to take it all back.
There was a knock at the door and Lin's head snapped up, suddenly torn from her daze by the very real sound of a fist meeting wood. Her body was moving toward the door before her mind realized what was happening and before she knew it, she was swinging it open to find a Council Page on the other side.
He spoke, but the words were unintelligible to Lin- something about checking in. Sokka hadn't called in and hadn't shown up to work. It was a routine wellness check. She stared at him blankly.
"Ms. Beifong?" he said, "I asked if Councilman Sokka was available. It is very unlike him to simply…."
"He's—" Lin began, unable to form the words, "He….we just found him like this."
The Page's glasses slid down his nose as he studied her stunned expression. His gaze was broken by a sob that came from deeper in the house.
"Is everything alright?"
And out of nowhere, everything came back into laser-sharp focus. Lin was back in the present, somehow in charge of her faculties again, "He's dead."
"What?!" The Page gasped.
She didn't immediately reply and the Page pushed past her and into the house. By the time she turned around she found he had already picked up the telephone and was shouting frantically into the receiver.
In a matter of minutes she heard the sirens approaching.
It seemed as if the entire police force had arrived, some by carriage, others by airship- but they were all present, filling her house with order and sense.
Ho-Tun was with the first wave of men. He didn't spare a glance for Lin, who remained posted at the front door shaking like a leaf.
Instead he brushed by her, gathering Toph from the floor and lifting her into his large arms. She looked so fragile, so small and so utterly broken in this moment and the image of it would stay with Lin for the rest of her life. Even Toph's protests were weak and Ho-Tun swept her out of the room without incident.
The second wave arrived with medics and healers who rushed forward, only to stop in their tracks when they saw him. It was plain to see they were far too late.
Kato was there too- diligently scribbling whatever the Page was saying onto his notepad. He met Lin's eyes briefly, full of pity and apology.
Somewhere in the back of the house Lin could hear her mother shouting. It was less hysterical now, more composed. She was insisting this was some sort of payback- that this was a crime scene. The medics surrounding Sokka's body looked skeptical.
Somewhere along the way, one of them had closed his eyelids.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. Lin moved forward, suddenly compelled to take his face in her hands and apologize to him while she still had the chance. She needed to tell him that she regretted her behavior, that she was sorry for cursing at him, that she always thought of him as her Dad. But, his face disappeared behind a zipper before she made it.
The realization that her opportunity had passed overwhelmed her and now the bile in the back of her throat clawed its way out. She pushed through the sea of officers and burst out the front door, falling to her knees just in time to empty the contents of her stomach on the lawn.
Through bleary eyes she watched as the sun dipped below the horizon, painting the sky the most brilliant shades of pink and orange. Darkness crept in, ushering the beautiful light out with a deathly shiver that resonated inside. As the night consumed her, Lin bitterly understood that for someone else in this world, dawn was just breaking. The world had ended and yet it continued to turn, never giving her family a second thought.
Hollow was the best description for what she had become. It had only taken ten short minutes to arrive here; the emptiest place she had ever known. Toph had traveled through hysteria on her way, but it didn't last long. Ho-Tun had placed a glass of water in her hand and as soon as she felt it there, she knew what he was about to say. It was something she had said to many women before, "He was a good man, Toph."
She sipped the water understanding she was on the receiving end of one of the standardized consolations she had recited to the sobbing widows of her officers.
Ho-Tun continued, "I promise we will-"
"-find whoever is responsible," Toph finished vacantly.
She felt his heavy hand at her shoulder, "I'm sorry."
She was seated on the edge of her bed, blankets bunched just at her side. Sokka hadn't made the bed that morning. Or maybe he hadn't made the bed the day before? She wasn't sure. She couldn't ask. Not that it mattered now, but she found her mind asking all manner of inane questions about his final moments as she sipped her glass of water.
On the final swallow she stood, shaking her body once to clear away the unanswered questions. She moved to the bathroom, turning the tap. She could hear her officers wandering around the house, voices low. Her feet felt them; heartbeats for each one. Why hadn't she noticed his missing?
She splashed her face with cold water, soothing the rawness of her tear-stained cheeks.
"Get your shit together, Toph. Now is not the time," she whispered. She scrubbed her face once more, patting it dry with a nearby towel. She couldn't afford to give into the desperate feelings that threatened to consume her- she still had a job to do and a daughter to raise.
Emerging from the bathroom she asked, "Where is Lin?"
"Outside," officer Xao provided.
She nodded once and made her way down the hall, "Kato?"
He looked up from where he'd been interviewing the Council Page, "Yes, Chief?"
"I want you with the body," she said, voice cracking slightly, "I want the autopsy results as soon as possible. Get a squad together to interview my neighbors. We need to know if anyone saw something off or anyone strange hanging around. I spoke to Sokka yesterday afternoon around three, find out if he was seen after that. And…. Call his sister, please."
She felt a hint of guilt, putting that last task on another, but she wasn't sure if she could bear to hear Katara's voice just now when simply standing upright was taking all of her resolve.
"Understood, Chief. "
She gave him a solid nod before walking out the front door, she stood on the porch sensing Lin only a few feet away on the lawn. Something in her stalled.
"Pardon me, Chief," a voice behind her interrupted. It was immediately apparently they were asking to get by her and she stepped to the side as the gurney rolled past. A wave of nausea worked its way through her body, causing her legs to shudder and her throat to constrict.
She heard a sob a moment later, coming from Lin's direction. Toph followed the sound of it, crouching beside her daughter finally. It was apparent she'd been sick and Toph fought to choke back her own urge to retch when the sour scent wafted her way.
She took a deep breath through the mouth and reached out to grab Lin's face. Tears rolled across her fingers, "I'm sorry I lost it back there, baby girl. It won't happen again."
Her only reply was a strangled cry and Toph gripped her face a little tighter, "Come on. Knock it off. Let's get up, okay?"
"Okay," Lin agreed weakly, standing on unsteady legs.
"We're going to be fine," Toph stated, "we're going to be fine."
She recited this mantra coolly, over and over until it echoed in the hollowness between them both.
To Be Continued...
A/N: I AM REALLY SORRY YOU GUYS