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|Know When to Hold 'Em|
24th September, 2014
He was antsy and twitchy, and Katara wasn't making it any better. She had a horrible bedside manner, and deep down he knew she was just as terrified for Toph, just as worried. He still wasn't able to cut her any slack, though, and three days after waking up he sent her scurrying from the room in tears. He could chalk it up to the pregnancy hormones, and truthfully, he wanted to, but that would certainly be a lie.
Oh, he was grateful for his sister, but he didn't really want to be around anyone. Well, Toph, but that was a given. He refused to think of the last time he saw her, instead focusing on pretty much every other time he saw her. How could they not find her? They had June—they were the Fire Lord and the Avatar. Two of the most powerful people in the world, and they couldn't track down one rebel group?
Two days after that, he was confined to bed after catching pneumonia—his weakened body wasn't able to fight off the infection as well as it should, and Katara actually ordered guards to make sure he didn't escape.
Aang and Zuko updated him as much as possible, but with each failure to locate her, he became more and more withdrawn. Sokka felt torn between curling into himself and ignoring the world, or jumping up and demanding answers. A week after losing her, he wasn't even able to get out of bed, so weak did he feel. His heart dropped a little further, got a little smaller. His illness passed and his bruises healed, but that was all physical. There was something in his heart, something so terribly, achingly familiar, he wanted to just rip it out. It was guilt.
He just wanted to cry, but he was a man, a warrior. He couldn't save Toph by crying, by being weak. But he'd never been able to save anyone. Not Yue, not his mother. Everyone would be better off if he didn't try so hard, because trying always meant that you could fall and fail and take everyone you loved with you. He never deserved a friend like Toph.
Almost subconsciously, he lifted his fingers to his lips. Everything was blurry, even that moment, but he could still remember enough. The way she pulled him down and suddenly there was pressure, scratchy, chafed, against his mouth.
And then... she wasn't there anymore. She was gone, to save him- to protect him, she was gone.
He felt the pressure rise behind his eyes when there came a knock at the door. Sokka blinked rapidly, glancing over to find Aang standing there, eyes downcast. Sokka followed his gaze to an innocuous piece of parchment.
"A courier just delivered this letter," he said. "You- you should read it."
Sokka swallowed thickly, nodding. Slower than he ever remembered seeing Aang move, the airbender walked over to his bed. He handed the paper over, and Sokka suddenly didn't want to read it. It couldn't be bad, could it? Aang wouldn't let him read bad news—he would break it softly, gently.
Hands trembling slightly, he unfolded the paper. The first thing he noticed was the thick, blocky writing. Some of the characters were almost illegible. The second was the presence of blood, confusing him. It wasn't droplets, nor was it thick. It was more like a paintbrush with too little paint, spread thinly over a canvas.
We have your precious earthbending friend. If you want to see her alive, you are to send a messenger hawk with the letter you stole to Jiqiren village. This must be completed by the full moon. We will not hesitate to kill your friend, but we don't want her. We just want the letter.
Sokka turned the paper over, half expecting there to be more writing, but unsurprised to find it unmarked. His eyes were drawn to several key points, and he shut his eyes, thinking. Toph was alive. That's what mattered.
"Jiqiren village is to the east," he began. "Toph and I stopped there because it's notorious for housing criminals. Honour amongst thieves." Aang stood silently, and Sokka continued. "Toph isn't dead. If she was, they wouldn't have a bargaining chip. They know that someone is going to go to the village to make sure everything goes smoothly, which means they're near the area. They won't risk having her out in the open, though. They'll keep her hidden until they have what they want."
"What makes you think they'll give her back?" Aang asked, voice soft. Sokka didn't take any note of it.
"Two reasons: one, they don't want to draw too much attention. Not giving her back would result in a fight, something I doubt they want to occur against the Avatar. Two, they mean what they say about not wanting her. 'We just want the letter'—they aren't interested in her. She's only being used as a bargaining chip, and they have nothing against us personally. Their anger rests in diplomats. Zuko, Kuei—they're the real targets. When's the next full moon?"
"Just under a week," Aang answered. "But, Sokka-"
"Aang," the elder boy interrupted, "don't worry, I have a plan."
"We aren't giving them the letter."
There was a thick pause. Aang blinked several times, and Sokka looked far too cheerful for someone who had been almost completely despondent only a few hours earlier.
"...What? Look, Sokka, you don't understa-"
"No! I understand perfectly, Aang," he interrupted, the smile replaced by a hard glare. Perhaps it was only hiding it as the pressure started up again behind his eyes. "She's my best friend, Aang. I'd do anything to get her back, but this? This will end badly if we listen to them."
"How do you know that? Toph is out there, injured, and you're saying they won't kill her?!" Sokka threw himself back into his pillow, arm covering his eyes. Aang continued. "Sokka, they've hurt her. We need to get her back as soon as possible. There's no time for your theories or hopes. We have to return the letter to save her. I'm not losing my friend."
"And you think I want to, Aang?" Sokka demanded. He pulled his arm away just so he could wipe at the tears that had gathered at his eyes. "We can't return it because she's our friend. She sacrificed herself to get that information, Aang. She sacrificed it because she believes that taking these people out is more important than herself. I won't let her have done that in vain. I won't. We'll figure something else out because I'm not going to lose the letter, but I'm not going to lose her.
"Now, you can help me come up with a plan, or you can give the letter back. But, Aang. I'll never forgive you if you do that, and Toph won't either. There is another way. We just have to find it."
Aang had bowed his head by this stage, and he was trying—and failing—to surreptitiously wipe his own eyes. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out for a few seconds. "We got something else," he said eventually, rushed, like he didn't want the words to fester in his mouth. "In the letter, there was something else."
He reached inside his robes and brought out a small bag. Sokka watched him gulp, and there was a curdling feeling in his gut that he couldn't shake. A shiver rand up his spine, and he wondered briefly it Aang could influence the temperature of the room.
"I'm sorry, Sokka," he said, not handing the package over yet. "This is why I wanted to save her. I can't... we need to get her out, with or without handing over the letter." He stood and let the bag fall to Sokka's lap. "I'm sorry," he said again, before finally leaving Sokka alone.
The Water Tribe warrior just looked at the small, innocuous bag. Such a little thing shouldn't set his teeth on edge, shouldn't induce a painful chill that refused to cease running along his spine, but it did. He hadn't realised his hands were trembling until he made to pick up the bag. It was so light, it felt like there was nothing in it at all, though the thought did little to curb Sokka's apprehension.
He carefully undid the straps, tipping the contents into the palm of his hand. For one, terrifying moment, he thought someone was playing a cruel prank. Mere milliseconds later, he came to his senses, a freezing grip around his chest. His whole body was numb, like he had just jumped into an ice-fishing hole. His vision became blurred, but even the hot tears did nothing to thaw out his heart. He could understand now, why Aang had been so supportive of just handing back the letter, but he couldn't take back his words now. It hurt, but everything remained the same. He wouldn't let Toph's sacrifice be for nothing.
Carefully, gingerly, he tipped the small objects in his hand back into the bag. One, two, three... ten... twenty. Twenty nails, from the hands and feet of Toph Beifong.
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