Sokka doesn’t think that it’s easy to be the Avatar. He looks at Aang, barely into his teenage years, and sees the weight of a hundred years of guilt pressing down into his small form. He sees the lines of duty carved into Aang’s face when he thinks about the people he is supposed to protect. Sokka knows how dedicated and how scared Aang is when Sokka wakes up at midnight to the sound of the Avatar sneaking off to practice his bending, still afraid to even attempt to master fire. Sokka knows this.
Sokka knows how difficult it is to be the Avatar but a small and, he thinks, selfish part of him finds it really difficult to be Sokka. Sokka the boomerang guy. Sokka the funny guy. Sokka, the normal one. He’s just a guy, surrounded by the extraordinary and sometimes it just makes him feel so small inside.
“STAND CLEAR, SOKKA!” Aang yells as he bends a tidal wave of water, intent on putting the out fire from the meteorite crash landing. And boy does the fire go out, but Sokka, clutching Momo, is jettisoned across the ground. Typical, Sokka thinks, storming typical that I can’t even stand around and do nothing right. He’s on the ground, sopping wet and shivering with cold and shame. Katara and Toph amble over, the threat now dealt with and the Fire Nation villagers safe, and Toph sticks out her hand to help Sokka up.
“I’m alright, thanks.” Sokka brushes her away, awkwardly clambering up and spitting out water. Even Toph, a blind girl, is more use than me! The thought crosses his mind in a moment of frustration and Sokka instantly feels awful. It’s one thing to make a good-natured joke that Toph has assured him makes her feel included, rather than a subject of mockery, it’s quite another to have such a thought simply because he hates how goddamn useless he is. He looks at the ground as Aang comes over to congratulate the team on another job well done.
They’re sitting round the campfire as the sky begins to darken. Toph has made comfy seats of soft earth for them to rest on and Aang and Katara are lazily bending water together, passing droplets through the fire and making pretty shapes. The fire is Sokka’s contribution, his way of helping when Aang puts the tents up with a nifty bit of air bending, Toph can always find the tastiest berries through her connection with the ground and plants, and Katara fetches and purifies the drinking water by flexing her fingers.
He used to be so good at all of this, back in the Southern Water Tribe. Waterbending never helped Katara follow the tiny tracks left by the snow hares or find the best place to set hunting traps. She didn’t know the secrets of how to find fresh herbs, even in the depths of winter; it was only ever Sokka that had such keen senses and green fingers. As he idly throws bits of sticks onto the pyre, Sokka thinks about how even this useful skill, building a simple campfire, will be made redundant once Aang gets over his internal conflict.
“We should go into the local town tomorrow,” Sokka throws the words out into the quiet air, an attempt to stop his mind lingering on unwelcome thoughts. “We need more food and there’s still a bit of money left. No need to go scavenging in this wasteland.”
“We’ll all go.” Sokka wonders when his sister became so authoritative, so confident. Aang’s the Avatar but Katara makes most of the logistical decisions and only Toph ever tries to over rule her; even then, Sokka’s pretty sure that’s just her stubborn nature taking over. Actually, he does know when Katara became so bold, so sure of herself: the Northern Water Tribe. In the vast and cold reaches of the North, Sokka found the boldness of first love and lost it just as quickly. If he looks up he can see Yue, keeping watch over them all from the night skies, always present yet so untouchable. Whilst I was courting a girl and then grieving for her, Sokka thought, Katara found herself in proving her worth to a Waterbender who didn’t even deserve the honour of teaching her.
“Yeah, maybe we can get some of the good stuff, given that we saved their town and all,” Toph declares proudly, dousing the small campfire in earth to make her point. The light is instantly snuffed out.
“Maybe, yeah.” Sokka rolls over to face away from all of them and slips into a restless sleep.
“I mean, man, we don’t even get any recognition any more! I miss the days when the peasants would thank us for what we did, but they didn’t even know they were in danger.”
They’re in the town, food successfully acquired and packed away into bags. Toph has her feet propped up on the dirty bench whilst she grumbles about the injustice of it all. Sokka’s sitting on the stone wall with his legs swinging off the edge and he sighs. He’s also thinking about injustice, the injustice of the whole goddamn universe in making some people special and others not. He must have made some kind of sound of frustration because Katara calls out from the bench where the trio are sitting (it’s like Sokka’s subconsciously removed himself from their company, like he doesn’t even think he belongs).
“What’s up, Sokka?”
“Nothing.” He says flatly, not even turning around, in exactly the kind of voice that in saying ‘nothing’ means ‘everything, me and you and the whole bloody world is what’s wrong’. The subtext is not missed. An awkward silence hangs in the air as Sokka goes from angry to frustrated to embarrassed in a matter of heartbeats. He slumps over further, curling his spine in on itself. “It’s just that you guys are these amazing benders. You literally saved this town, all these people,” he gestures around him with one hand, the other still holding his lunch that he seems to have forgotten about. A rare occurrence indeed. “They don’t even know they were in danger. And what did I do? I got really, really, wet.”
Aang jumps up, a swirl of wind propelling him over to where Sokka sits. Way to miss the point, buddy. He crouches next to Sokka on the wall.
“Sokka! You know you’ve got loads of skills that we need!”
“Yeah,” Toph chimes in. “You’re the only one that can read the maps! Katara and Twinkletoes don’t even know how to find north.”
“And you are the best at making fires and cooking,” Katara comes up behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
Sokka turns around to face her. To face all of them. “I can now! What about when Aang masters firebending? When he can make a fire and roast the meat with a click of his midget fingers? What use am I going to be then?” They quiet, not sure what to say to him. “It’s just hard sometimes, guys. If I were at home then all this wouldn’t really matter, I’d be a sailor or a hunter or like dad. It wouldn’t matter that I can’t bend. But I’m not a sailor, I’m on a bloody quest to save the bloody world from the bloody damn Fire Nation and I’m no bloody use!”
Aang puts a hand on his knee. Katara keeps touching his shoulder. Toph uses his lap as a replacement for the table. In that moment, all of them touching and connected, Sokka feels drained of all his frustration. He closes his eyes, breathing deeply.
“I know what will make you feel better.”
It’s shopping. Katara knows me so well, Sokka thinks gleefully as he practically prances up the weaponry section of the indoor market.
It’s not that he’s so simplistic that he can be distracted from the dramatic speech he just made by the promise of swinging around a few shiny weapons, like a dog given a new toy. He put the words, his feelings, out there into the dynamic of the group and they accepted them. There were no soft rebukes, no accusations of selfishness that he thinks he might deserve – after all, no one really wants this. This weight of duty, this promise of a solar eclipse, and this threat of a comet looming over them from the skies. He hasn’t forgotten any of that.
But Sokka also really likes shopping.
“Aha!” He runs, practically skips, past Toph to drag a heavy mace off a rickety wooden rack.
“Can ya even swing that thing, water boy?” Toph smirks, clearly sensing how heavy the thing is as Sokka heaves it over the floor.
“Nah,” he drops it by her feet. She groans good-naturedly and earthbends the floor to shunt the thing back onto the rack. Or close enough. She turns away to ignore the crunch of the wood as the frame breaks, whistling casually as if to convey ‘nothing to see here, just a blind girl staring at the wall’.
Sokka goes through the best of what the market has to offer, working off the last of his frustrations by swinging halberds, throwing stars at a nearby post (badly), and trying on various bits of armour. He sticks a pencil in his mouth and parades up and down the aisles, wearing a flouncy feathered hat on his head and doing bad impressions of Jet, much to the annoyance of Katara and the amusement of Toph.
He’s just about had as much fun as you can have shopping without actually intending to buy anything when Aang and Katara come over. They’ve got those shifty looks on their faces like they’ve been plotting something – faces Sokka feels well acquainted with, given the number of bad ideas this little raggedy gang of wanna-be-world-savers has come up with.
“Whassup guys?” He leans back on a table in an attempt to look casual and not like he had an identity crisis an hour ago. He staggers as the fold up table he had lent on collapses, scattering jewellery over the floor. The stall owner gives Sokka a dirty look, but Aang works his magic with a boyish smile and an origami flower whisked seemingly from empty air.
“What’s up,” Katara says crispy, enunciating the words properly, “is that –“
Aang, who has finished sweet-talking the shop owner into forgiving Sokka’s blunder, interrupts her. “We’ve found someone to teach you the sword, Sokka! We’ve all had masters to help us get better and Piandao’s this amazing sword master and he’s right here in this town and everyone says he’s fantastic and –“
“Woah, take a breath there Aang.” Sokka cuts in. “I think that’s totally awesome and I really, really appreciate the effort, but the solar eclipse is getting closer and we need to warn the Kingdoms. I don’t think I have time to study with a sword master.” He’s grateful for the effort Aang has gone to, to try and make Sokka feel included, like his skills are worth developing. Because who am I kidding, I’m terrible with a sword. But we’re working on a ticking countdown here, people!
“Sokka, we can spend a few days here. You can learn something worthwhile in a few days, and Toph, Aang and I can get supplies for the next leg of our journey and plot the route. Besides, we all need a little relaxation, right guys?” She looks to Toph and Aang for support. The latter gives her a thumbs up and a massive grin – but that’s no surprise, because when has Aang ever really been that time sensitive? – and Toph gives a trademark sarcastic comment.
“Yeah, maybe you and me can hit up the town spa, Katara!” She winks at Sokka and throws a peace sign up at Katara. “Girls day, am I right?”
And that’s how Sokka ends up on his own in front of a massive pair of cherry-red doors, knocking on them gingerly whilst his knees knock together in time with his hand.
“Uh, I’m here to train with Sword Master Piandao?” It comes out as a question, rather than a statement. The man eyes him up and down.
“What have you brought to prove your worth?”
“Uh,” Sokka reaches into his pockets, pulling out a used tissue, a blunt arrowhead, and some dried lentil beans. The man shakes his head, sighs, and gestures for Sokka to follow him. They walk into Piandao’s study. The middle-aged man is well built, dressed in traditional Fire Nation garb and is facing away from the doorway, hunching over a calligraphy board.
“A young man is here. He wishes to train under you.”
“Uh, yeah, hi,” Sokka shuffles awkwardly into the room, one hand scratching his head and the other stuck in his pocket. “I’m Sokka and I wish to be instructed in the way of the sword. I’m-“
“Let me guess. You’re the best swordsman in your village and you have learnt all that you can from them, so now you are here, in my house, to learn from me. The best sword master in this part of the world.” Piandao cuts him off, his voice sharp and the words sounding rehearsed, like he’s given this speech a hundred times before. He doesn’t even bother to turn around.
“No, Sir. I’ve travelled all over the world and –“
“Yes, yes. I’m sure you have. I’m sure you also have a list of achievements as long as my leg.”
“Actually, Sir,” Sokka steps forward. “I’ve travelled from the Earth Kingdom colonies where I grew up, I’ve sailed through the seas of the Water Tribes and seen the empty temples of the Air Nomads. Now I am here, in the Fire Nation,” Sokka pauses for dramatic effect. His voice grew stronger with every word. “And all I know for sure, is that I’m actually pretty bad with the sword. Terrible, really. I’ve seen the world and all these amazing things and there’s only one thing I know for sure: I have a lot to learn.”
“Is that supposed to make me want to teach you?” Piandao asks. He dips his pen into ink and carefully makes sweeping brushstrokes over the page.
“I was told that I would have to prove my worth to you. But to be honest,” he injects every bit of sincerity he has into his next words, “I don’t know if I am worthy.”
There is a quiet click sound as Piandao puts down his brush pen. He sets the board aside and turns around to face Sokka, rising in a smooth motion.
“Well then,” he picks up his sword and points it towards Sokka. “Let us find out together how worthy you are.”
Huh, Sokka thinks, surprised, that was easy.
Whilst Sokka is getting his butt kicked up and down the courtyard by Master Piandao for the third day of his training, Aang, Katara and Toph are slumped in a circle at their campsite. Toph is using a bit of wood to clean underneath her toenails, sighing in satisfaction.
“Do you have to do that, Toph?” Katara sounds disgusted.
“It’s all about that sweet picking sensation, baby,” Toph flicks a bit of toe gunk in the direction of Katara, who douses Toph is water in retaliation. Aang barely even looks up as the pair of them squeal. He does pay attention when Toph stops trying to throw dirt up Katara’s nose and lays down, ear to the ground.
“Sokka’s coming!” She exclaims, all dastardly plots involving dirt and toe gunk forgotten. Sure enough, Sokka ambles into view, walking awkwardly like his muscles are aching but a pleased and happy grin on his face. “These noodle brains really need your help. They can’t tell their arse from their elbow when looking at the map, and obviously I can’t read it.”
Sokka laughs and jabs his finger at a spot on the map, well away from the marks Katara and Aang had made. “We’re here.”
Katara hunches over the map, muttering furiously to herself and looking around at the landscape to try and determine how she got their location so horrifically wrong. Aang just grimaces self-effacingly and asks Sokka how the teaching is going.
“Oh, I’m not very good. But he’s told me all these awesome things about how to use the sword as an extension of myself and about holding the lay of the land in my mind and using it all to my advantage.” He plops himself down. “I’m learning so much. AND!” He flexes his bicep and lifts up his shirt, grinning proudly, “CHECK OUT THESE BADASS BRUISES.” His side has turned a splotchy green and blue colour where Piandao had wacked him with the flat side of the wooden sword.
Sokka feels the same kind of satisfaction that Katara does when she collapses after a day of waterbending practice, drained of energy from practicing the same move over and over. He stretches, relishing in the deep ache of his muscles. To him, it is proof that his body is capable of incredible feats. It’s the same to him as Toph’s scarred knuckles are to her – from plunging her hands into rock over and over in her youth, trying to force it to obey her, to prove to herself and to her parents and to the world that being blind doesn’t mean that she is weak. Sokka’s body might not be able to bend but it can fight.
Instead of voicing any of these thoughts, he yells enthusiastically, “ISN’T THIS COOL?”
Toph snorts and mutters something about idiot swordsmen. Katara gapes and rushes to the bags, riffling through them to find a salve to help the bruising. Aang makes a non-committal sound. All in all, they seem very unimpressed and more concerned. He deflates slightly.
“Anyway, I’ve just come back to get some metal from that meteorite. Piandao thinks I should make my own sword and I thought it would be kinda symbolic, ya know?” He looks at the group hopefully with wide puppy eyes. “Like it was the meteor that started the fire that made me feel all weird, but now I’m finding my own path and I want that stupid rock to be a part of it. A reminder of what I was and what I am going to be.”
Katara finishes slathering ointment on Sokka’s side and smiles fondly up at her brother. “I think that’s a great idea, Sokka. Let’s go get it.”
It takes a group effort, of course. Only Sokka remembers where the damn meteorite actually fell (how do these kids have such little sense of direction? he thinks) and Toph bends the rock away to reveal the useful metal that Aang carries up to Piandao’s castle, using airbending to help lighten the load. Katara knocks on the door as the rest of them puff and wheeze from the effort of walking up so many steps. We, Katara thinks as she pounds her fist, are going to get my brother the blade that he deserves.
“Who’s this?” Piandao opens the door and Katara takes a step back. Sokka, not put off by Piandao’s bulky form, points at the rock.
“Just some other good ol’ Fire Nation folk. Do you reckon I can make a sword out of this meteorite?”
Piandao raises a sceptical eyebrow and takes a closer look at the metal, giving it an appraising and experienced eye. He straightens up and a slow smile takes over his face. “We’ll make a sword unlike any other in the world.” He claps Sokka on the shoulder, the weight pushing him through the door. “If you and your friends can manage to get that hunk of metal to the forge.”
It turns out forging a sword is a long and unpleasant process. Sokka is lathered in sweat by the time they are finished and he dunks his whole head in the trough of water that they used to cool down the blade. His arms feel like they have fallen off from the effort of swinging the hammer. But he managed it. As he kneels before Master Piandao, Sokka feels a warm, soft glow of contentment spread throughout his whole body. The sun has risen on the fourth day of his time with Piandao and with it rises a new Sokka.
“I have trained you, Sokka, these past few days. You came to me with words of unworthiness on your lips but in you I saw a heart as strong as a lion turtle and twice as big.” Piandao looks down upon his pupil in approval, Sokka’s new blade held in his hands. “You showed something beyond mere skill with a sword. You showed me creativity, versatility, intelligence. These are the traits that define a great swordsman, and these are the traits that define you.”
With these words, these words that gave him the approval he had so desperately wanted, Sokka’s heart sank like a stone. I am creative and versatile and intelligent. But I am not honest. I cannot be an honourable man with these lies. He opened his mouth but the truth caught in his throat. To speak it would be to acknowledge his shame and Sokka’s heart beat faster. He rose shakily to his feet, body unsteady but mind focused.
“I cannot accept your praise, Master. I have lied to you. I am not worthy.” Behind him, Aang gasps and Katara moves forward, knowing what Sokka is about to say, but Toph stops her. Sokka thinks that, out of all of them, he and Toph are the most alike: struggling to find their place in this group, in this world. Her, cloistered away from the world by overprotective parents, him set free by his but floundering in the vastness of the world. Toph nods at Sokka, granting him the space and the strength to speak the words.
“I’m not from the Fire Nation. I’m from the Southern Water Tribe. I lied to you so that I might learn the way of the sword.” His mouth has gone dry and he croaks out the last words. “I’m sorry.”
He flinches back when Piandao makes a sudden gesture, throwing the sheathed sword sideways to bounce against his chest. He clutches it, not quite understanding what is happening.
“I’m sorry, too.” Piandao unsheathes his own blade.
The dropped scabbard clatters on the stones of the courtyard, echoing in the stunned silence. The others move forward to support Sokka, hands raised and ready to bend. He stopped them with a gesture. Bless them and their unwavering support. But I will stand on my own terms and I will prove my strength. I need this.
“This is my fight.”
The words are simple. They carry their own weight and Sokka sees a hint of respect in Piandao’s face, hidden between the lines of anger and betrayal. He stops caring about Piandao’s expressions when there’s a very sharp blade swinging it’s way towards his face. Sokka raises his own blade and parries, spinning out of range. Piandao slides forward with the predatory grace of a hunting tiger and swipes for Sokka’s legs. Sokka jumps, lunges, and stumbles over the stones. He is saved from a messy death by some light footwork and a backwards somersault, moving the fight out of the courtyard and onto a small bridge leading out into the gardens.
He’s huffing as he jumps backwards onto the railings of the bridge, using the higher ground to protect himself from the taller and stronger man’s weighty blows. Sokka jumps diagonally backward to the opposite railing, chancing an attack of his own at Piandao’s unarmoured head. He misses and Piandao throws back his head and laughs, breathing not even heavy and his face free of the sweat that is trickling down the back of Sokka’s neck.
“Excellent! Excellent! Using your superior agility against an older opponent.” A brief exchange of sword blows and Sokka flips backwards again out of reach onto a small wall. “Aha! Making use of the higher ground as well!”
Sokka uses his free hand to push his dripping hair out of his eyes. Vision is one of the most important things in a fight, Aang’s bending fights have taught him that; with a small amount of dirt carefully aimed at an opponent’s eyes, Aang has ended many a fight before it even really started. What the hell, Sokka risks a quick glance behind him – he fixes the lay of the land in his mind, just as Piandao taught him – and gets firmer footing from which to parry. Is this really a teaching moment for him? I’m about to get my sodding head lopped off.
Sokka risks trying a more advanced move, one that only a few days ago he never would have dared to attempt in a real fight, and traps Piandao’s blade under his own. The older man tugs and swears but can’t work his blade free. Quick as a cat, Piandao kicks Sokka in the chest, shoving him backwards over a thick bamboo plant. Scrambling up desperately, Sokka turns to run. Stumbling around a corner, he pulls back a bamboo plant and releases, catapulting the hefty foliage into Piandao’s gut.
“YES!” The man roars, seemingly entirely unfazed. “MAKE YOUR SURROUNDINGS FIGHT FOR YOU!”
The man is crazy! There’s blood on Sokka’s scraped shins, sweat in his eyes and coating his hands, and he can barely think straight. Adrenaline lets him scoop up a handful of dirt and sprint away, looping in a circle back to the courtyard where the fight began. Piandao is a few feet behind him when Sokka skids to a halt, sways backwards under a horizontal sword slice, and uses the momentum to straighten and fling the dirt into Piandao’s eyes. He’s blinded! Sokka feels a small inkling of hope as Piandao stills, sword held defensively as he listens out for Sokka’s movements. Now’s my chance.
He thinks back to days with his father, hunting rabbits on the white ice sheets of the Water Tribes. He thinks of all the hours he has spent spear fishing, carefully positioned so as not to allow his shadow to fall over the water and spook the fish. Sokka knows he can do this; it’s the same movement he has done all his life, just one foot in front of the other, slowly and silently like a hunter. Just in reverse. A twig snaps and the sound is deafening in his ears. It sounds like failure.
Piandao spins and Sokka gets his arm up just in time for the blade to be struck out of his weakening grip. It spins out of his hands and skids across the stone. Hands punch his chest, the weight of a fully-grown man behind the blow. Sokka slams to the floor, chin tucked chest to avoid his head thumping against the paving. Little good that will do me, he’s frozen in terror, when he stabs me through the chest. Might’ve even been better to be unconscious.
His peripheral vision sees his friends running towards them, Aang at their head. Sokka tips his head back in acceptance of his fate, but when an open hand and not a sword is pointed towards him, he struggles up into a sitting position.
“Excellent work, Sokka.” Sokka looks bewildered. “I’m a little too old to be fighting the Avatar, don’t you think?” His smile is fatherly and his voice a little amused.
“How did you know?” Aang has dropped the fighting stance and drawn closer. His eyes are fixed on Piandao.
“I’ve been around a while. You pick that kind of thing up.” Numbly, Sokka takes the proffered hand and is levered to his feet. Piandao supports his weight as they shuffle over to a bench. Sokka sits, still looking dazed as the manservant comes over with a cloth and a glass of water. “I knew about you too, Sokka. Such an obviously Water Tribe name. Next time, try ‘Lee’. There’s hundreds of Lees, but not all that many Sokkas.”
“But then why would you agree to teach him?” Katara is agitated, clearly distressed by the test that Piandao has apparently sprung upon her brother. “Why would you teach the sword to a Water Tribe member?”
Piandao recovers Sokka’s blade. “The way of the sword does not belong to any one nation. Knowledge of the arts belongs to us all.” He hands the blade back to Sokka. Their hands grip the hilt at the same time. “You are creative, versatile, and intelligent. But most of all, Sokka, you are honourable and you have the heart of a swordsman and of a truly great man.”
Sokka calls his new blade Sokka’s Comet. “It’s a pun! A play on words!” He explains to Toph, who doesn’t seem to find it funny. “Because it’s like Sozin’s Comet, which is going to be a complete disaster, but Sokka’s Comet would be totally awesome.”
“Your sword skills are a complete disaster."
“Aww, Toph. When I went away for three days all I heard when I got back was ‘Katara isn’t as funny as you, Sokka’ and ‘tell us a joke, Sokka’. But now,” he throws his hands up in the air in mock annoyance. “Now I don’t even merit a chuckle.”
“Alright, funny guy. It’s a good name.” Toph slaps his shoulder as they walk. “It’s a good sword.”
“Yeah,” Sokka rests his hand naturally on the sword hilt, feeling the rough grooves in the metal, the result of his unpractised forging abilities and evidence of his willingness to try. “It is.”
They walk together, the four of them keeping pace, back towards the campsite where Appa waits. Sokka’s feet and heart feel light, enveloped in this little bubble of camaraderie, this sense of closeness that is born of trials and dark nights and campfire songs and suffering and laughter.
Sokka still doesn’t think that it’s easy to be the Avatar. They are all so young to have seen so much, their shoulders too small for the weight of the future. Though his body can’t and never will be able to bend, he no longer feels small inside; instead, he swells with pride and the love he has for this small, ragtag team. Sometimes, he thinks, it’s really great to be Sokka.