“Where is he?” Katara asked as soon as the door opened. Hakoda's surprised expression at seeing his daughter faded into a look of grim determination. The Chief of the Southern Water Tribe stepped back from the door, holding it open as he jerked his head toward the warm, welcoming insides of his hut.
“In here,” Hakoda said, as Katara noted the lines of stress on her father's face—lines that hadn't been there the last time she'd seen him. If the letter he had sent her was anything to go by, she knew what was putting that look on his face, and she didn't like it one bit.
Katara stepped inside of the warm hut, followed closely by Aang, and then by Toph, who entered with a sigh of relief, tugging a scarf away from her chattering jaw. Hakoda closed the door as they moved from the antechamber into the hut's great room.
Katara glanced around the space; nothing much had changed in the past six months. It was still home, with all of its familiar smells and books and art on the walls. But there was something wrong here, and she knew it. A vibe that felt tense and miserable, and seemed to infect the very walls.
“It's good to see you, Dad.”
“It's so good to see you, too,” Hakoda said when he walked out of the antechamber. He drew her into his arms and hugged her tightly. “I didn't mean for you to come all the way down here, but I am glad that you came.”
“My brother needs me, where else would I be?” Katara said into her father's warm hug. When he pulled away, he cupped her face and smiled a little, crinkles at the corners of his blue eyes. “Besides, it's been nearly a year since he left with that crazy bi... With her. I've been worried sick about him. Of course I came as soon as I could.”
Her father's frown deepened and she knew that he knew what she had been about to say. He didn't admonish her, but the frown remained, even as his hands dropped down her arms and took hers. The skin of his brown hands was rough, cracked and chapped by the relentless winter winds that howled through the South Pole even now.
There were new threads of silver in Hakoda's beaded hair, and new worries on his shoulders. He looked tired.
“He hasn't been up to many visitors,” Hakoda said slowly, glancing at one of the guest room doors. Hakoda's hut had three guest rooms, although one of those rooms was technically Katara's, as she kept some of her things there. She'd decided to live in Republic City with her husband, but the South Pole was still home in the ways that counted.
“What happened? You didn't say in your letter. I was so worried, and with everything with Zuko and... Is it...her? Is it the breakup?”
Hakoda opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped, wincing. “Yes and no. You should hear it from him. But he hasn't been out of his room in days, no matter what I've tried. Malina's been leaving trays outside the door, but he barely touches them.”
Katara's heart squeezed and she took a step toward the door. She'd never known Sokka to go off of food before. “That bad?”
“His heart is broken, Katara. And there are other things... He went through a lot in his year away. Sokka is...a changed man.”
Startled, Katara turned to meet her father's gaze, but the grimness in his eyes was edged by sadness now. She glanced at Aang, who was staring at his feet. Toph was leaning against the wall, her face down and away, her arms across her chest. They were just as worried about Sokka, but they knew she could handle this.
“I've got this,” Katara said, squaring her shoulders as she pulled out of her father's arms and marched purposefully over to the closed wooden door. She knocked on it and leaned forward, “Sokka? It's me. Katara. May I come in?”
There was no answer, and she turned and glanced at her father, who nodded. She knocked again.
“I know you're in there, so don't bother pretending. Dad's worried sick about you. Please, let me in.”
There was the sound of something thumping on the floor, then the drag of feet. She glanced down at the light spilling from the gap at the bottom of the door, and saw a shadow move across it.
“Go away, Katara,” came a rough reply that had her blinking, stumbling back a half step from the door. She hadn't known Sokka could sound like that. His voice had been so bleak, so tired.
What had he gone through to make him sound so hopelessly lost?
Her heart in her throat and tears in her eyes, she stepped back to the door and touched the wood. “You know I'm not going to, so you may as well open up right now and save me the trouble of Waterbending this thing off of its hinges.”
There was a sound like a dry chuckle from the other side, but it stopped almost immediately. “You'd do that, wouldn't you?”
“Of course, I would,” she said confidently, fingering the little skin of water she kept belted to her waist. One twist of her fingers, that was all it would take. “I don't think Dad or Malina would like me ruining their door though, so why don't you just open it and save me the trouble?”
Sokka sighed and the next moment the door opened with a creak, then she heard him shuffling away, his steps heavy. She glanced back at Aang and Toph, and her father, but they all looked grimly back at her.
Steeling herself, she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. The room was stuffy, lit only by a small fire smoldering in the stone hearth. There was a sour smell, and a sharp reek that shocked her into lifting her finger to her nose to block the smell.
Her gaze glanced across the room, and saw that it was strewn with clothing, weapons, and pieces of parchment with writing on it. When her eyes finally landed on Sokka, she gasped out loud and darted forward, but he held up a shaking hand to stop her and she skidded to a halt as her feet fouled on a broken fan half-buried in debris.
The ragged man before her shrugged and hung his head. He was sitting on the edge of a wooden stool beside the fire, just out of the glow of its smoldering heart. His hair was down, uncut and unkempt, heavy with grease. There was a thick beard on his face, untrimmed and starting to go wild. His clothing was stained and ill-fitting. He looked like he'd lost a lot of weight, or maybe he just looked smaller somehow, hunched on the stool.
When he tipped his head into the light, Katara's shock turned into a piercing pang of worry as her brother's blue eyes blinked bleakly at her from beneath his straggly hair. There was something wild in those eyes, something a little desperate and utterly, utterly broken.
“It's me, sis.”
“Oh, Sokka!” Katara breathed and darted forward, ignoring his signal to stay back this time. She dropped to her knees in front of him and threw her arms around him. Sokka was stiff in her arms for a long moment, and then something in him broke and he wrapped his arms around her and pushed his face into the crook of her neck.
“I missed you,” he managed in that rough voice, all gravel and glass. There was a smell on his breath, something alcoholic and strong. She recognized the little slur in his voice, too. He was drunk. He'd been drunk for days, if she was any judge.
“I missed you, too. I've been worried for so long... I didn't know if you were alive, or dead, or... I knew it was a mistake! I knew I shouldn't have let you go off with that witch!”
Sokka stiffened again, and pulled back. “What?”
Katara studied his face, trying to find her big brother in the care-worn lines of his face. The joy and humor that she had always relied on, even when it annoyed her, had been leached out of him. She wondered again what could have happened to her brother to make him look like this.
She thought she had a good idea. She'd heard those rumors for months, and now...
“Dad wouldn't say what happened when you were gone, but I got the feeling it was bad. Was it bad?”
“Some of it was bad,” Sokka said, and looked into the fire, his mouth turning down. “Some of it was really bad. I don't want to talk about it...I did things... I became someone else, Katara. Sometimes I forgot who I was, and that's... I... The nightmares... I don't sleep much. I can't sleep...not without hearing... And... And I can't sleep without her.”
His voice broke on that last, and he looked down at his hands, which were trembling between them. He had scars on his hands, flat and shiny from some old burns. And there was a large scar on his forehead, jagged and white against his dark skin, like a lightning strike that ambled into the greasy thatch of his hairline.
Sorrow pierced Katara's worry, and she touched Sokka's face gently, turning his gaze back on her. “I heard about...about what happened. About the breakup. I'm so sorry, Sokka. I know you loved her. Dad said you were heartbroken and pining for her, but I didn't think he meant this badly. He was right, wasn't he?”
Sokka searched her face and then laughed a little. “Heartbroken and pining, huh? Pining yes. Heartbroken? I don't know. She did what she had to do, and I can't blame her for it. I couldn't help her, I didn't even know how. She left me because I was useless, so heartbroken? No. It's something else I feel, Katara. At the same time, I miss her, but it's not about her. It's in my head. I'm all fucked up, but it's not her fault.”
Katara's brows lowered at that and she frowned.
“Did what she had to do? Was she... Was she angry at you for disappearing for all of those months or something? I can see why she might be, but that's not your fault, not really. You were trying to save Zuko's life! Surely she understood that once you explained?”
Sokka's bleak expression clouded over with confusion. “What?”
“It's not your fault Suki broke up with you! We all heard the rumors about her and Zuko and now... I don't know if you know this, but...Aang went to see Zuko after everything with the Smoke Demons. He said they're together. Zuko and Suki. You're not to blame for that! If she cheated on you, then that's her fault, and she didn't have to do that! And stop calling yourself useless!”
She felt a hot crack of anger in her. The persistent rumors coming out the Fire Nation had nearly sent her on a mission to save her brother's honor a time or two. She wasn't very happy with Zuko or Suki at the moment. Watching her brother's despair, she wanted to Waterbend them both off of a cliff.
Sokka ran a hand down his face and then leaned back in the chair. Another dry laugh, which was entirely without humor, and tinged with more than a bit of exhaustion, rattled his shoulders.
“Yeah, Suki. I know you loved her, Sokka. I know she broke your heart.”
“She did, and she didn't, Katara...and that went both ways. This isn't about Suki, or her relationship with Zuko. She didn't cheat on me, though, rumors aside. I don't want you to be angry with her, she's a good person. She's a better person than I am, by far.” He added that last bit in a bitter mumble.
“Then why did you break up?”
“It's complicated. There were a lot of reasons. Mostly it's because I cheated on her.”
Katara stilled for a moment, staring at her brother. Then she sank back onto her heels, her hands primly folded in her lap.
“You did what?”
“Yeah. Cheated on her,” he nodded glumly.
“You already know. There's no one else it could be,” Sokka mumbled, turning to the fire. He grabbed a poker and jabbed at the embers, stirring them, exposing their white-hot underbellies to the air. Katara watched the flames, trying to wrap her head around it.
“Her. She and...” Katara couldn't bring herself to say her name, or to even contemplate the scenarios pinging through her head at the moment. “You and... Her.”
Katara shot up, her head spinning all of a sudden. She put a hand to her forehead and started pacing back and forth, as Sokka jabbed at the embers desultorily, his shoulders hunched.
“You and Azula. You cheated on Suki with Azula. You slept with her?”
“Eventually. It's not... It's not as simple as all that, and I... I don't want to talk about it. I can't. That's not... That's not the problem.”
“Okay, you slept with her. Okay. And Suki broke up with you...because you slept with Azula. Makes sense.”
“That was part of it. She's in love with Zuko, Katara. I told you, it's complicated. It was a mutual breakup. I'm okay with it. Let it go.”
Katara paced back and forth, something alarming shouting in her brain. “Okay, so you're okay with the break up. You're fine with it? You don't love her...but you're pining over her?”
Sokka sent her an irritated look that was much closer to the brother she remembered than the morose stranger before her.
“I will always love Suki...but not like that. Not anymore. It's not her I'm pining over. Come on, Katara, put two and two together already. I know you already know.”
Something of Sokka's old sarcasm was back, and it flavored his rough, slightly drunk voice like pepper on a steak. It sizzled across her senses and she whirled on her brother, dropping her hand from her forehead.
“This...you...” She gestured to his ragged state, the bleakness in his haunted eyes, the longing and hopelessness. “You and Azula. You... Are you in love with her?”
“Knew you'd get there eventually. Dad didn't tell you?”
“NO!” she barked, and glared at the closed door, as if she might stab daggers through it and into her father.
“He doesn't like her,” Sokka mumbled, stirring the embers again, his face turned away from her.
“What a shock! She is Azula, after all. What... How? HOW? HOW! You cannot tell me you're seriously pining away after Azula! Sokka, she's a psychopath!”
Sokka threw the poker at the hearth with a clattering bang. It ricocheted off of the stones and sailed past her, just missing her by inches. Sokka surged to his feet and rounded on her, every inch of him filled with a rage that lit his eyes. Beneath his raggedy beard, she could see the grit of his teeth, the snarl of his lips.
“Don't call her that. Ever.”
Katara wasn't cowed by his anger, though it shocked her. She'd never seen her brother look at her like that. It was like she was facing a stranger, a dangerous stranger. There was something in his eyes, something feral, wild and tinged with the air of an injured animal who had been hunted too long by unseen predators and nightmares too real to run from.
Sokka—her Sokka—had never been so quick to anger before, and never at her. What had he gone through? What had that bitch put him through to change him so much from her beloved brother? She had sucked the life and laughter out of him. She had put that anger in his eyes.
Hatred swelled in her, and she aimed it straight at Azula. It was a hatred that had simmered in her for years, ever since Azula had tried to take Aang from her. She could still remember those long, desperate hours she had spent healing Aang, tirelessly trying to bring him back from the precipice of death. His body was still scarred from Azula's attack, the lightning blast on his chest and even on the bottom of his foot, were still livid red, even all these years later. Every time they made love, she was reminded of how close she had come to losing him, and it made her hold him that much tighter.
And she was always, always reminded of the woman who had done it.
Azula was never far from Katara's mind, even during those years when she had seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. Katara could still remember Zuko taking the blast that had been meant to kill her instead. She had spent many sleepless nights remembering that look on Azula's face, wondering if the woman would appear in their lives again, looking for revenge.
Azula had wanted to kill her. She would have, just as she had tried to kill Aang.
The woman was a monster. Unhinged. Dangerous. Murderous.
When Mai had brought the woman back into their lives, Katara had wanted nothing more than to throw her into a cell and toss away the key. She'd known that locking her up was the safest course of action, but no one had wanted to listen to her.
No, they'd wanted to trust her with a mission to save Zuko. Despite the fact that she had tried to kill him any number of times before. Despite the fact that none of them trusted her. And Sokka...
Sokka had walked like a lamb to the slaughter into the reach of her murderous intent, agreeing almost without arguing, to join the Smoke Demons, to travel with Azula. Azula, who was crazy. Azula, whom Katara didn't trust.
And her brother had fallen in love with her?
Katara's jaw hardened. It was too unlikely.
No, she had seen how manipulative Azula was, even at age fourteen. Time could only have honed her skills. There was no way her brother was in love with Azula. She refused to believe it.
“What did she do to you to make you believe that you're in love with her? Spirits, Sokka... I know you're smarter than this! This is Azula we're talking about. She's a manipulative bitch. She messed with your head, got what she wanted, and then took off when it was convenient!”
Sokka stilled, his eyes flashing with that rage again. “That's not what happened, Katara. That's not even close.”
“Oh, really? Look at yourself! You're drunk! You're a mess! You're... I don't even know you anymore! My own brother! She did this to you!” she said through her teeth, tears in her eyes. “And you don't even see it!”
“I LOVE HER, KATARA!” Sokka burst out, stepping forward. He jabbed at his chest. “I love her! You don't know what it was like out there! What we did, what we went through! What we saw! And she... She's not the person she was, she's not anything like that. She's... You don't understand. You can't understand. This isn't her fault... You don't know... You don't know...”
“I know her. She hasn't changed one bit, Sokka. She's still destroying people because she can! Because that's all she knows how to do!”
“She seduced you.”
“That's not true, not even a little bit.”
“You're not a cheater, Sokka. Dad didn't raise you that way, and I know you hate people who cheat, you've always said so. There's no way you did that without her manipulating you!”
“I'm not perfect, Katara. I did what I did, don't try to blame her.”
“It was her.”
“Don't blame her for my decisions!”
Sokka started to say something and then stretched his neck, making it pop. “It wasn't a mistake. Bad timing, but not a mistake.”
“Well, she certainly got what she wanted, didn't she? It was probably a pretty fun game for her, watching you turn your back on Suki. How long did it take? A few weeks, a month? I can't believe you fell for it!”
“That's not what happened!” Sokka burst out again, running his hand through his greasy hair.
“Did she tell you that she loved you?” Katara snorted derisively, arms crossed over her chest.
“Then where is she, Sokka?” She spread her hands wide, encompassing the filthy room, and everything beyond it.
“Gone. Gone because...because I couldn't fix her... She's sick, Katara. She wants control, to be better, and...I don't know how to give her that. She left because it was the right thing to do. I'm not angry with her for that. I know why she left, and I understand, I just... I want her back. I can't sleep without her. And the things she's gone through... If I'm this fucked up, then what is she dealing with? I'm scared for her.”
“She has you so messed around, Sokka,” Katara said, walking slowly over to him. Sokka didn't flinch away, not even when she touched his arm. She noticed the faintest shadow of black ink on his skin, the faded remnants of the henna tattoos he'd worn undercover as a Smoke Demon. Another couple of weeks and they'd gone for good. “I wish that you were right, for your sake, but it's Azula. You can't trust her.”
“I trust her with my life, Katara. She saved my life so many times,” he said, and touched the white scar on his hairline. “If you knew, if you knew her the way I do, you wouldn't say these things.”
“I know her.”
“I know you hate her, you always have, but you hate someone who doesn't exist anymore.”
“Hate is a strong word,” she said with an edge in her voice.
“It's not wrong, though. Not in this case. I know you have your reasons. I know what she did to Aang, what she tried to do to you. What she did to Zuko, and Suki, and all of us. I get it. I never forgot it, not once. But she's not the person she was. I know you can't understand that. I didn't get it at first either, but then... Then she let me in. I got to know her.”
Katara sighed and then shook her head. “Sokka, I want to understand...”
“You can't,” he said bitterly, and stalked away from her. He put his hands flat on the hearth, bending over the fire. “She's gone, and I'm...”
“Yeah. Yeah, I'm a mess. It's not her fault, whatever you think. She didn't do this to me. I was having problems before she left, I just wanted to ignore it. When she was here I could pretend I was okay because she needed me to be strong, but now she's gone and I'm... Katara, it's them. I can hear them in my head whenever I close my eyes. At first it wasn't so bad, I had her to worry about, and she helped... But even so, I had nightmares, and these stupid flashbacks... And I could smell... Smell burning things, things that weren't there, and then... Then the screams. They're always screaming, and I can't help them. I'm trying, and she's trying, and everything is on fire, and... It's not Azula. It's them. I can't live with it. I can't.”
Her brother's voice broke again, and a great shudder left him. Katara forgot her anger at Azula, and went to him, gathering him in up in her arms. Sokka folded around her, his head on her shoulder.
“If I just knew why, maybe I could live with it. I could find some peace, but the pieces don't fit. We never got answers, and I can't live with it.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Sokka was quiet for a long time, and then he started talking, telling her about a town called Rinchaka Falls, and the things he had seen there. His body shook, sweat rolling down his back and forehead as he spoke.
Katara felt tears in her eyes, but she held them back. She couldn't cry, not when Sokka needed her to be strong. She listened without interrupting, as Sokka pulled the story out of the aching heart of him.
“Afterwards...afterwards it was bad, but I thought I'd gotten over it, mostly. I thought I could live with it. I told Zuko the story, and it wasn't this bad, but now... Now it hurts so much, Katara. I don't know why, but I started reliving it. The past month... Dad thinks it's Azula, and that's part of it, but it's them. The children. I can't see past them, Katara. I can't eat. I can't sleep. I'm sick to my stomach, and I don't... I don't understand.”
“You went through something profoundly traumatic, Sokka. That's not something you get over in a day, or a month.”
“I know. Believe me, I know that,” he said heavily. “I'm lost.”
“Well, that's why I'm here, big brother. You don't have to do this alone.”
“You can't fix me,” Sokka said sadly. “I have some experience in this, you know. I couldn't fix Azula. And you can't fix me.”
Katara touched his worn face and let a determined little smile cross her lips. “We'll just see about that, big brother.”