After the war ends…is that even the right way to describe it? It isn’t a traditional victory, at least, not the way they are in the old tales.
Sokka remembers snuggling into his mother’s furs at night to listen with wide eyes, and there are some missed prerequisites in there, for sure. The hero is supposed to get a grand feast and an enchanted blade and at least two dozen beautiful women fawning on him, and safe passage home on a kayak sculpted from silver moonlight and piled high with gifts and lit with soft blue lanterns.
Instead, there’s a lot of awkward shuffling in the Capitol as three assembled armies all try to decide where they’re going next, and what they’ll do when they get there. The hero listens to a bunch of admittedly inspired speeches from the real hero and tries not to gag and die of the utter sap whenever his sister is mentioned. He sits up late eating fire flakes and talking about wrestling and family and the future with someone who isn’t a woman yet, but would be beautiful if she could just stop picking her toes for five seconds. He watches his sister burst into tears saying a temporary goodbye to the guy who was supposed to be the villain, but who has instead promised to visit when he finds the time and grudgingly agreed to go fishing with him next summer. And then he goes to talk to his father.
In the end, there are no magical gifts for Sokka and he doesn’t go straight home, but a ship and a maiden are both involved. Kyoshi Island is on his way, after all.
Standing on the deck next to Suki, watching her bright eager smile and the way she grips the rail as the prow slices through the waves on their way into harbor, it dawns on Sokka that this may not match the tales, but he can find nothing in this twist to complain about.
“Raise your weapon.”
The grass rustles in the passing wind; strands of hair blow across Suki’s face. Her eyes are narrowed, and she stares down the length of her blade at him like a predator crouched and ready to spring. Sokka licks his lips, swallows once, and nods.
She’s already lunging, and the tip of the blade drives toward him like an arrow. Sokka dodges to the side a little too fast, stumbles, and finds himself hopping awkwardly on one foot, trying to kick the other one loose from a mat of berry vines. Idiot, idiot! You’re supposed to be teaching her!
Temper flares up, and he brings his foot down hard and pushes off, instantly reversing his momentum and catching her blade on his own before she can strike again.
He gives his wrist a quick twist – you fought in the Capitol, you trained under a White Lotus master, remember what you learned – and his blade snakes along hers, sliding and circling it and then catching, guard to guard, there! The sweet spot.
A grin splits Sokka’s face, and he flicks his blade up. Suki’s practice sword goes pinwheeling into the air.
Suki stumbles back, mouth open in surprise. Planting his sword-tip in the dirt and casually leaning on it, Sokka shades his eyes with his hand and watches the spinning bamboo blade go up and up, feeling pretty pleased with himself. “Ha-ha! Not bad for a first try, but you can do—oof!”
The blur of green hits him like a runaway trolley, and suddenly he’s rolling over and over down the hill, wrestling and kicking and shouting in dismay. They hit the bottom of the hill with muffled grunts from both parties, and while he’s still seeing stars, Sokka finds his face planted solidly in the sweet-smelling autumn grass and his arm twisted up behind him. A slim knee drives into his back.
“I give up! I give up,” he splutters, twisting to try and peer over his shoulder. “Man, are you a sore loser!”
“Never take your eyes off your opponent until the threat has passed,” Suki points out, calm and sanctimonious except for her uneven breathing and the bits of grass stuck in her hair. Her cheeks are flushed, and her green eyes are sparkling. The effect is half temper and the rest from falling down a hill, but it’s amazing all the same.
“Hunh,” Sokka manages to say, eloquently. Catching his breath, he raises his eyebrows, and adds, “Actually, taking my eyes off you is not as easy as you might think—”
Her eyebrows go up, light arches taking wing like startled birds, and then she starts to laugh and her tense muscles relax. Sokka rolls over onto his back, realizes that he has no idea where his own practice sword went – and then he has his arms full of warm, sweet-smelling warrior girl, and he decides he doesn’t care.
They never do find those particular swords. Painstakingly carving a new pair for the armsmaster, shoulder to shoulder on a bench outside the training hall, they cheerfully agree it was worth it.
She was trying to fetch the sharpening stone for his boomerang, but while digging through his pack, Suki’s fingers brush over little pots of age-grayed bone. Curiosity kills the catpigeon. She twists one open and dips a finger inside; it comes out black, and smelling of soot and grease.
Minutes later, Sokka looks up from fiddling with his blunted weapon and sees Suki standing in the doorway with her hands full of his makeup and her eyes full of amused questions.
“And the white is made with ground shells,” he finds himself explaining to a circle of fascinated Kyoshi warrior trainees, half an hour later. Apparently they use a kind of white beach stone, and…the list of comparisons goes on, trading lively banter back and forth. This girl’s mother knows a trick with walnut skin, but it stains the eyelids for days. That girl’s mother warned her not to use such and such a berry, which produces a bright red, but dries and cracks the skin with long use.
Soon they’re clamoring for a demonstration, and Sokka demands quiet – this is serious warrior business! – and kneels with great dignity on the dojo floor in front of the wide-eyed girls, solemnly smearing the lines of the mythical wolf across his brows and cheekbones.
Seated near the door and sharpening the abandoned boomerang with deft sweeps of the stone, Suki watches out of the corner of her eye and smiles.
The dull thud of metal into wood rings out across the village square.
“Again!” Suki barks, pacing down the row of wooden targets. Half a dozen girls in plain green training clothes are retrieving their fans. They trot obediently back to the line scratched in the earth, raise their fans, stand poised for a moment, then flick their wrists. Gold blurs whirl through the air, striking the targets with varying degrees of accuracy.
Walking up the street with a box under his arm, Sokka yelps and dodges as a fan wings past his ear, burying itself deep in a wall. “Hey!” he protests, and turns to yank it out. “Who threw that?”
A blushing girl hesitantly raises her hand, looking like she’d be happy to sink through the earth and never come out. She’s the newest and youngest in the class, barely twelve, the poor thing. Coming around for another pass down the row, Suki pauses to watch, one eyebrow raised. Everyone remembers the Southern boy that Suki taught to fight in the Kyoshi style, and knows the stories of his exploits in the war. Half of her youngest students idolize him, and the other half fancy they’re in love. She bites her lip, thinking of his harmless – but noisy – temper.
But the fuming look on Sokka’s face fades at the sight of the girl, and he grins. “You’ve got a pretty good arm,” he admits, and jogs over, handing back the fan. “Brought your lunch,” he tells Suki, handing her the box and planting a kiss on her cheek that wrings sighs out of a few trainees – and then he turns back to the girl, who is shyly clutching her fan.
“Range is the hard part,” he points out. “Now you’ve just got to put the right angle on it. Here…”
Smiling, Suki lets him lead the delighted child over to another target, and turns her attention back to the class at large.
The bamboo stalk jerks roughly under the machete blows, flailing its leafy crown from side to side. Watching with his hands on his hips, Sokka nods in approval as it falls with a crash.
“So, you can hollow these out?” he asks the craftswoman next to him. She nods, naming a maximum length with the tools she possesses, and they both start drawing in the dirt with stripped branches of bamboo, arguing in a friendly way about angles and lengths and elements of design.
It’s all way over Suki’s head, but she watches anyway, curious in spite of herself. If Sokka thinks he can bring bits of Fire Nation technology to the island, especially involving running water, she’s not about to complain.
As the conversation goes on, though, she finds herself looking less and less at the increasingly complex diagram in the dirt, and more and more at Sokka himself. The way his whole face lights up, smiles and frowns passing across it like summer clouds. The eager gestures he makes, tracing the shape of a water wheel in the air with his whole arm, wide sweeps like his entire imagination is trying to burst out of him and force the machine to take shape.
“…by the time winter rolls around. Right?”
“Huh?” Suki says, startled. “What?”
The bamboo cutter exchanges a cheerful, knowing glance with the craftswoman that makes an annoyed flush of heat rise to Suki’s cheeks, but Sokka, bless him, is too far away in his world of calculations and ideas to notice.
“Weren’t you listening?” he complains, and launches back into his spiel, gleefully outlining a system of pipes and wheels that would bring water to every major building in the village. Suki nods along; anything that brightens his eyes this much is worth trying out in her opinion.
Well. Always provided it doesn’t cause too much damage.
The messenger hawks bring letters, and he reads them eagerly, scribbling out long replies full of comments and complaints and advice. Everyone on the island is eager to hear the news.
Where Katara and Aang are traveling next, and what crazy animals they found at the last village. Which cabinet members Sifu Hotman has been most tempted to ask his fiancée to pin to the wall. How the rebuilding is going at the South Pole, and the latest mechanical inventions from the Northern Air Temple. (The only one who doesn’t write is Toph, but that’s no surprise.)
Reclining comfortably on one elbow on the sleeping mat, Suki blinks away sleep and watches Sokka write by lanternlight. He’s been using her writing desk more than she ever did, in the last few weeks. The flame flickers shadows across his focused, absent expression, and his hair falls unbound around his face. His hands are deft and quick with the brush, even if his handwriting looks like a mantishopper fell into the ink and then struggled across the page to escape. She covers a smile at that thought.
“What?” He’s looking up at her, bemused and a little suspicious. “What’s funny?”
“Nothing,” she reassures him, and reaches out to catch his hand and pull him toward her. He only puts up a token show of resistance; her mouth is curved in an inviting smile, and the sleeve of his borrowed shirt, already much too big for her smaller frame, has fallen scandalously low on her shoulder.
“So…” she says, very innocently, “what would it take to get you to put those blueprints away for the night? I’ve got a few things I’d like you to look over.”
“Nothing but work around here,” Sokka grumbles, grinning, and leans over to blow out the light.
He’s just finished lacing up his pack when a shadow falls across the woven straw mats. The open door is blocked, sunlight streaming in around the girl standing there. She’s still wearing her full warrior’s regalia, makeup and all – she must have run straight from the training hall when she heard.
“So,” she says, and, boy from the frozen South that Sokka is, that single syllable still makes him shiver.
“Uh, hey, Suki,” he starts, and makes a gesture at the bag. “I, uh, I got a letter from my dad, and…”She crosses her arms, in a rustle of silk. “You’re leaving for the winter. I heard. When were you going to tell me? On your way out the door? At the harbor? Or were you just going to wave from the boat?”
“No!” he manages, “I mean, yes – I mean I was going to talk to you about it, but…”
She sighs, and leans against the doorframe. It’s scary how suddenly all the fight and spark has gone out of that lean frame, the warrior deserting Suki and leaving her with only the lonely girl.
“I knew you’d have to, eventually,” she says, wearily. “I’m sure your family misses you. I just…”
At the look on her face, Sokka suddenly sees the long winter months stretching out before him, and for the first time in his life, the thought chills him to the core. Home, with its freezing blizzards and endless white snow and barking seal-lions as far as the eye can see, bright short days of fishing and skin-tanning and meat-drying slipping away into the long dark polar night. He can already picture the hard-packed snow walls of his family’s igloo, and himself sitting by the door with a fur wrapped around his shoulders, shivering in the silver moonlight and thinking about her.
Loneliness swells up in him like seawater through a crack in the ice, and Sokka lunges to his feet and grabs both her hands. “Come with me,” he blurts. “C’mon, you can meet the whole tribe, they’ll love you—”
“Sokka, no,” she protests, pulling away. “I can’t, I…I’m going to be in charge of the whole village someday! I’ve already been gone for so long! I can’t just leave again, not with winter coming on and the harvest to bring in, and those reports of pirate attacks up the coast, and—”
“But,” Sokka says, before his brain can catch up, “can’t somebody else do that?”
The sudden light in her eye makes him drop her hands and take a step back. “What?”
“Well, I…I always thought…” he stammers, wondering what invisible line he’s just crossed and how to blunder back over it to safety.
“Thought what?” Her fists are clenched at her sides.
“That…you’d come live with me someday,” he says, each word dragged out of his mouth on a disjointed thread. Suki’s hand flies to the throat of her kimono, touching the lump of the homemade betrothal necklace hidden underneath. He’d woven the first one out of grass and flowers, the morning after…well, the morning after, and promised a real one as soon as he had thread and stone and they weren’t in the middle of a war.
From the look on her face, this is the first time she’s thought – really thought – about what accepting that necklace meant. It isn’t a happy look.
“You thought,” she snaps, “that I would leave my people, everybody I promised to teach and care for and defend, and…and follow you home like a lovesick wolfpuppy? I’ve never even been to the South Pole—”
“Well, I’m the chief’s son!” Sokka snaps back, suddenly angry. What’s she implying, that he should throw away his own heritage and live here like a wife or an adopted son-by-marriage with no family of his own? “What do you expect me to do?”
“I don’t know!” she cries, and gestures to the pile of bamboo pipes stacked against the wall of her home. “Stay here! Finish this! Use your imagination!”
She’s heard the stories from Katara, all his early attempts to build and invent in an environment where the only real architects are waterbenders. The sense of wasted potential flares up in her, feeding the earthquake in her heart. “There’s so much here for you! So many resources, so many people who want to help you invent things and change the world! But you’d rather go be the chief and mess around building stupid towers out of snow, until you hate it and you hate them and you h-hate me for letting you go!”
Tears are welling up in her eyes, and she can feel one sliding down her cheek, leaving a track in the stark, impassive paint. Above all else, she can’t stand to let him see her cry.
Pushing past him into the house, she slams the door and wavers for a moment, then falls to her knees. She buries her face in her hands and takes deep, unsteady breaths until the urge to weep has passed.
How did she never think of this? How did she take so much for granted? It all made so much sense until now, but it probably did to him, too, imagining her bundled up in furs, spearing fish with him in a boat bobbing on frozen waters. Suki shivers. Now what?
The bars of sunlight from the window slowly creep across the floor. When they’ve nearly reached the wall, the door slowly slides open.
Gentle hands take her by the shoulders and turn her to face the door. Sokka is kneeling beside her, with a damp cloth in his hand.
“Here,” he says, and carefully – so carefully – he takes her chin in his free hand and wipes the ruined makeup from her face. She closes her eyes and lets him, refusing to think about anything right now but his warm fingers and the gentle touch of the cloth, sponging away the evidence of her tears.
When she can’t feel even a streak of paint on her skin, he leans in and kisses her forehead.
“You’re right,” he says, quietly. “Thanks.”
Suki’s eyes fly open, staring at him in disbelief. The look on his face is solemn and a little sad, but his jaw is set the way it was when she found him clutching Toph’s hand on that airship. For a supposed pragmatist, he’s not very good at letting people go.
“I mean,” he amends, with a sheepish half-smile that softens his face into something more familiar, “we’re both right, but I think, maybe, you might be more right. I don’t know. It’s…complicated.” He sighs, and rakes his fingertips through his ponytail to smooth back a loose strand.
Suki smiles, not a little sheepish herself. “No kidding,” she admits. “You know, though, I bet your dad would have some good ideas.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I bet Oyaji would, too.”
She nods. “Yeah.”
They sit for a quiet moment, bathed in the late afternoon sun. The boom of a conch shell breaks the spell, and Suki takes a deep breath, then squares her shoulders. The traders have probably finished their business by now, and they won’t wait forever.
“Come on, you’ll miss your boat,” she points out, and gets to her feet, offering him a hand up. He takes it, and pulls her into his arms for a hug.
“I’ll be back in a few months, tops. I’ll talk to him.”
“Right,” she agrees, and tilts her chin up to kiss him. A madcap little grin tugs at her mouth. “We’re not gonna let this beat us. Are we warriors, or what?”
“Or what,” Sokka agrees, offering his arm. She links hers through it, he shoulders his pack, and together, they start down the winding path to the harbor.
The leaves are falling golden from the trees around them, but whatever has to end to make it happen, Suki has a feeling that something even better is beginning.