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4th August, 2014
It was strange, Sokka would later muse, how time and distance quelled the familiarity that should come with meeting up with a lost friend. To him, the distinctive smell of Katara, with her strange jasmine and sea-salt mix, was a foreign thing; once upon a time, it would have calmed him to know his sister was so close. Now, it only brought confusion and, when that ended, sorrow and guilt.
He never thought he could miss the smell of sandalwood and petrichor so much.
"Thank spirits you're awake," the young waterbender cried softly, ensnaring her brother in a tight hug before slowly pulling away, a soft smile on her face.
Opening his eyes, Sokka couldn't place where he was. The room was familiar—thick greens and browns, with glowing crystals sticking out from the walls at regular intervals—but no names came to his head. No words, either, and he would later suppose that he had been drugged when the second thought that popped to his head was some abstract concept of 'what words would I be thinking if I could be thinking words?'.
Blinking his eyes, he turned his head a few inches to face Katara directly, though his brain was still rather empty. Shouldn't she be in the Fire Nation? Shouldn't he be elsewhere? Not in a soft bed somewhere in the Earth Kingdom—for it was definitely in that nation—surrounded by more people than he had previously realised. Aang was standing behind Katara, his tattooed hands on her shoulder as he gently rubbed out the knots that had formed. One of Katara's hands was resting on her rounded stomach; the other had somehow worked its way into Sokka's hand, holding gently.
Zuko was standing in one corner, his body rigid. He had in his hand a bloodied sheet of paper that, to Sokka, looked terrifyingly familiar.
The one thing he could place, and he had to be scared of it.
Turning his eyes back to Katara's soft face, he began to notice other little things; the bags under her eyes were slightly larger than they were when he left, and the smile, while not forced, was concealing something behind the dimples and soft eyes.
"Katara." Zuko's raspy voice seemed even harsher to Sokka's ears, and he visibly cringed. Everyone pretended not to notice, but the nonbender still caught the way Aang stood a little straighter, and the way Katara suddenly had a lump in her throat that she couldn't swallow.
Sokka still hadn't said anything, even as Katara murmured something about waiting outside and letting the two older men step forward.
"How are you feeling, Sokka?" Aang asked, his hands, with nothing to do, clasped in front of him with the fingers twitching. "Any pain? What's the last thing you remember?"
If Sokka had been capable of surprise, he would have been at that moment. Too concerned with the 'where' and the 'how', he hadn't even thought of himself. There was an insistent throb in his left shoulder, but it was constant—likely the reason he had completely missed it in the first place. He shifted in place, and aside from knocking a few (what he assumed to be) rather large bruises, he couldn't actually say he was in too much pain.
Then again, he did have an awful feeling that he was forgetting something. Looking at Zuko and Aang's grim faces, he knew he was right.
"I feel fine," he said eventually, voice soft from disuse. "Where am I? The last thing I remember is getting a letter from Zuko, telling me that he needed my help."
The two benders shared a glance, though Sokka was reluctant to call attention to it. He didn't like the sad look in their eyes, and he didn't want to know why they had it in the first place.
Zuko took another step forward, and Sokka could see that his hand was clasped around another object. His attention was forced to the firebender's face when he began talking.
"Sokka, that was almost a month ago. You're in Ba Sing Se," he said. "You've been here for almost three days—Katara refused to leave your side since you were brought in."
"Brought... in?" Inexplicably, Sokka felt his mouth run dry, and he wasn't sure he wanted his friends to keep talking. "Wait..." he said, licking his lips. Aang was avoiding his gaze, the fidgeting spreading along his body. Zuko met his eyes, and Sokka immediately wished he hadn't. "Where's Toph?"
There was a thick silence at first before Zuko—of course it was Zuko—started to explain.
"June found you. You were supposed to rendezvous with Aang and Katara three days ago, but you never showed. We tracked you down to a forest a few miles north-east of the Serpent's Pass, almost a day out of the city."
"We don't... Toph wasn't with you." Aang's voice, deeper than it was seven years prior, was usually so good at soothing people, calming them. Why wasn't it working now? "You were unconscious, holding onto... some stuff..." The monk trailed off, looking incredibly uncomfortable. Sokka didn't want to have to voice his question, and luckily Zuko came through.
"You were holding onto a letter. It's addressed to former Minister Qin, but it's coded, so we don't know what it says yet. It's invaluable to us-"
"Toph's invaluable!" Sokka cried, surprising both boys (and himself) and the volume and insistence of his words. "Why aren't you looking for her? Where is she?"
Sokka could feel himself getting worked up, his heartbeat thundering against his ribcage, but he couldn't help it. He tried sitting up, but his shoulder cried out in objection, and he let himself be pushed back onto the bed by Aang.
"We are looking, Sokka. June has searched everywhere, but they're masking her smell somehow. As far as we can see, they've gone underground again; there are signed of a battle leading away from where you were found, but we... we don't know where she is, or what condition she's in."
At these words, Zuko let go of whatever was in his hand, letting it fall onto the bed next to Sokka's arm. It was with tentative fingers that he reached out and grasped it, a small, choking noise escaping him. It was a blade—the blade. The one he had pulled from Toph's side. He didn't drop it? Why didn't he just drop it?
A sudden surge of memories assaulted him. Getting the letter, meeting up with Zuko in the Fire Nation and being surprised to see Toph. Powerful Fire Nation ministers and generals had escaped to the Earth Kingdom, Zuko said, and he needed two people welcome in the expansive nation to collect them. Sokka could feel the reason that he and Toph were needed—it was right there, on the tip of his tongue—but he couldn't quite place it. Something about Kuei and the confusion his return had caused...
He and Toph were taken to Kyoshi Island; a sovereign state, Zuko's relationship with Suki (friendship! Friendship!) meant that it was still possible for Fire Nation citizens to arrive to the Earth Kingdom. All other ports were guarded for Fire Nation ships, and it was just.... painful, trying to get through customs. After travelling from Kyoshi to the village of Chin, the duo made their way north, asking innkeepers and keeping an ear out at taverns for talk. Toph was better than he was at fire-ferreting our information, but he was better at interrogating people. There was something to be said about a wild-eyed Water Tribe warrior wielding a boomerang, a blind, barefoot earthbender tapping her heel impatiently behind him.
They followed the trail all the way north, up beyond the Serpent's Pass and to the east. Instead of drowning, they were able to walk all the way because they actually remembered Toph could earthbend a bridge for them.
Then, everything went wrong.
The thought they could take whoever it was—there may have been a group of them, about two dozen, but Toph and Sokka were experts. They had done this a hundred times—a thousand. They had survived a war; surely they could take on a group of Fire Nation exiles?
Perhaps they could, but they didn't realise how many were skilled firebenders or weapons-masters. They didn't realise that they were meeting up with a small army; Toph was too focused on the enemy at hand to feel one approaching...
... And then she helped him get away. She sacrificed herself so he could escape...
Sokka didn't realise how long he had been silent until the bed compressed as Aang sat down. Sokka swallowed thickly, trying to keep whatever was in his chest from bubbling into his throat.
"Promise me you'll find her," he said eventually, voice low. He didn't want to explain what had happened—they didn't need to know. "They came from the east shore. There was a town two days travel north. They-" He took a moment to compose himself, the tightness in his throat making it too hard to continue. "There are too many of them to travel fast or far. They'll still be in the area."
Aang and Zuko shared another look—spirits, he was sick of that—but this time, neither said anything.
"Promise me you'll find her," he insisted again. His voice was strong, but low; he couldn't make it louder even if he wanted to. "Please, just promise..."
Aang gave a grim nod. "We'll find her," he swore. "Get some rest, Sokka. We'll find her."
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