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1st August, 2014
Over the sounds of explosions—of shouts and orders and just people moving, messing her about and filling up her poor head with so much action and reaction—Sokka could barely be heard. They had become separated not long into the fight, too distracted with saving their own skins to focus much on the other. He had kept an eye out for her tell-tale bun; she had made sure to track his movements. Watching each other's backs had only stopped when suddenly, instead of the small scouting party of firebenders that had initially attacked, they were overcome by dozens of the bandits, each swinging their own weapon, and each with their own agenda.
"Toph!" Sokka called her name again, glancing around and almost taking a short sword to the shoulder. He managed to duck in time to avoid the worst of it, but the blade still managed to nick him on his upper arm. This was bad. He'd already sustained a few, more minor injuries, but that luck wouldn't last. Whipping around, he plunged his own sword into his opponent's stomach, relishing with a sickly thought the look of pain that came over the other man's face. Taking a breath to compose himself, he tuned out the typical sounds of battle; the clanging of weapons on weapons, the yells and the screams. He was trying to find the one thing that shouldn't be heard in a battle with Fire Nationals in the Earth Kingdom.
When Zuko had asked the duo to ferret out deserters who had fled to Toph's home nation, Sokka hadn't expected something like this. Sure, they were bound to band together, but there were just too many to be purely deserters. They had been... recruiting? Holy spirits, that was bad. They were two days away from the nearest occupied town, and something told Sokka that they didn't want to be found just yet.
A sudden rumble reminded Sokka of what he had been doing before he was distracted, and taking advantage of a brief lull in enemies, he glanced around again.
There! To his left, the small but unmistakable rumble of earth reached his ears, and fending off bandits—he could be very graceful when need be, with all his dodging and leaping and parrying—he moved towards the noise, relief surging through his veins as he spotted Toph, still upright and fighting. She was sporting a rather nasty slice to her left calf, the blood coagulating and forming a sticky mess as it dribbled down her leg. He could see, even as far away as he was, that she was trying to put as little weight on it as possible. This only made him run faster, and within the span of a dozen heartbeats he was by her side, helping to cut down the enemy before them. Using her arms, punching outwards, Toph began to rock the ground, destabilising the bandits. They backed off slightly, regrouping, encircling. Sokka reached out, and locating Toph's hand, gave it a squeeze. She responded with one of her own, and he knew it would be okay. So long as they were together, nothing could stop them. They just had to get out of this circle.
"Toph, I need you to make a hole and knock them all back for a few moments," he murmured to her. She set her mouth in a grim line, and with a strained nod, pulled her hand from his grasp. He heard her take a deep breath moments before bringing her injured leg up and slamming it to the ground.
Walls of earth shot up, shocking the bandits into moving back a few steps. This gave Toph enough room to work, and with the help of a few hand jabs, the walls toppled over, leaving more than a few men trapped underneath.
That was when she took his hand and ran. They were two steps out of the circle when she stumbled with a cry, and it suddenly became him leading her. He had no idea where they were running, but at that moment the only thought was to get away. They ran for what felt like hours, and by the time he slowed down, panting hard, he felt like he might faint. Releasing Toph's hand, he took a few more steps forward, reaching up to feel the cut along his shoulder. The wound was deeper than he had thought, and hadn't stopped bleeding. Reaching into his tunic, he was happy to note that the small scrunched-up letter—the entire reason for being out in the countryside in the first place—was intact and legible. Stowing the letter away again, he grabbed the hem of his shirt, ripping it into a long bandage. He was just about to start wrapping his shoulder when he heard a wet cough behind him.
Suddenly remembering his friend, he turned. His eyes travelling up to meet Toph's, he was met with a gaze even glassier than normal. Her hands were pressed to her side, and underneath the small digits, he could see a thick green stain.
"Toph?" He took a slow step towards her, which turned into a short run as she swayed dangerously. He managed to catch her as she coughed again, spitting bloodied phlegm onto the grass.
"Toph!" his voice came out as a harsh whisper, laced with something that her foggy mind couldn't place. Sokka knelt down in front of her and gingerly lifted her shirt up, adrenaline coursing through him at the sight of a light throwing knife's blade, still lodged in her side. The end, which would usually have a handle, was bent, and Toph groaned weakly as he trapped it gently between his fingers and began working it out.
"Tried- tried to get it out," she panted breathlessly, face twisted into a thick grimace. "Could- couldn't. We were... running... I couldn't- uggh." She was cut off as the metal finally slipped from her skin. Blood began dripping from it almost straight away, and Sokka could tell why it was so painful—the edges were serrated, making it easy to slip through skin but so much more painful to pull out. He grabbed the crude bandage, but knew straight away it wouldn't be long enough.
"Shit," he hissed, looking around for something else to use.
Toph sucked in a breath, staring over the top of his head as she reached inside her shirt. "My- use my breast band," she said, undoing the knot and letting the material unwind itself. Sokka never realised just how much material her band took up, and was quite satisfied with its length. It didn't take him long to rewrap it around Toph's petite frame. Kneeling in front of her, it didn't take him long to remember the slice on her calf, and telling her to turn around, it was even worse than he thought. Sokka was barely aware of his own injuries as he used the first bandage to wrap her leg. She would need stitches, but he refrained from telling her that.
"We need to go," he said instead, rising to his feet. "Can you walk?" He missed the way her foot twitched at the feel of some distant vibration. Sokka's gaze was focussed on the sun, busy calculating how much time had passed. Too much, by his reckoning. They needed to go if they didn't want the bandits to catch up—and he knew they would try.
"Sokka, I can't..." she began, feeling better with the bandages but still not good enough. "They're coming, Sokka. I can feel them." The Water Tribe boy looked at his friend, and grabbing her hand, began to tug her along.
"We have to go, then," he said, not expecting her to jerk her hand from his grip. "... Toph?"
Toph's head was down, and she took a deep breath to steady herself. There was a painful throbbing in her side, and whatever had numbed the pain enough to walk was gone; she could barely put any weight on her leg. "You have to get that information to Zuko," she started. "Whatever it is must be important. Sokka, I can't... I'll only hold you back." She felt him take a step forward, and the ground seemed to tremble beneath his feet. He didn't say anything for a few moments, and she wondered if he understood what she was telling him.
"Toph, I'm not going to leave you here-"
"No! Idiot, you have to. I'll hold them off, but you need to go. Now."
His heart had begun speeding up the moment he realised what she was talking about, and he knew she could feel it. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it when he realised there was nothing to say. She knew it all anyway.
Even if he had thought of something to say, it would never have escaped his mouth as Toph took a step forward and, grabbing his lapels, pulled him down to meet her. The pressure on his lips should have told him exactly what she was doing, but it was only when she pulled away, eyes shining with unshed tears, that he understood.
"I'll see you at Ba Sing Se," she said, offering a quivering smile. He didn't have time to respond as she pushed herself away and a huge wall of earth erupted between them.
"Toph!" he cried out, finally aware of more than just her—there were thunderous footsteps and the sound of clanging metal. He waited for some kind of prompt, some sign that Toph would be following him, but none came, and he was running without telling himself; escaping when all he wanted was to be with Toph, protecting her.
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