Why come back?
Because I want.
Because you want to? That is your will, not the reason behind it.
I didn't want to come. I want, so I had to come back.
What it is you want then?
"I wish to study," Sokka says, "I feel I have only just taken the first steps of a long journey, and I need your guidance not to stray from the path. I apologize for imposing further on your kindness."
He'd agonized over the little speech for weeks, recited it to the low roof of his cabin in a hundred different variations. He'd gone for polite, sincere and eloquent. The end result might have come closer to pushy and pompous.
Sokka doesn't dare look up from the floor. He'd fallen to his knees as soon as he'd stepped into the room, head hanging low as if his joints had moved on worn-out, oiled grooves. The first time he was here he had to remind himself to be respectful. Now, Master Piandao's presence is enough to inspire an unthinking reaction of admiring reverence. Sokka hadn't known the man before him enough to realize what was at stake before. He could have shrugged off a rejection then. He can't be turned away now.
The muscles in Sokka's back and shoulders feel on the verge of snapping and unraveling like strained bowstring. The quiet is maddening. Master Piandao doesn't take his time with words, unlike Sokka he manages to be concise and eloquent without taking a week to deliberate over wording. This unexpected uncertainty is almost as devastating a blow to Sokka's composure as any clear refusal would have been. A little more and he's going to start running at the mouth, and that has yet to end well for all the times he's done it.
"I have nothing further to teach you," Master Piandao says finally.
"As if. You trained me for two days. I'm pretty sure I got the abbreviated wartime course," Sokka snorts out. Then his mind catches up with his mouth, and he freezes. Maybe there's an interpretation of what he just blurted out that doesn't make him sound like a rude, ungrateful blockhead. Maybe he didn't just shoot and bury any chance he might have had to be accepted as Master Piandao's proper pupil. Maybe whales can fly and play the Tsungi horn at the same time.
Sokka chances a look at Master Piandao's face. At least he doesn't look like he's about to use Sokka's blood for sword polisher.
"I'm afraid you're wrong about this. But you are welcome to stay and find out for yourself."
Sokka manages not to gape at that, but only just. Maybe he shouldn't have been so surprised. Master Piandao didn't exactly act predictable last time either.
"I- Thank you, I'll make sure- I'll do my best to make sure you don't regret it."
"Speak no more of it," Master Piandao says with all outward signs of impersonal graciousness, but something in the crinkle at the corners of his eyes, in the set of his mouth, tells Sokka he's not displeased to have him here.
Sokka feels the sudden urge to inspect the floor some more, but he wouldn't be here if he were a coward, so he grins like an idiot at Master Piandao instead, which is just about right.
Master Piandao's expression doesn't change, but he somehow seems even more not-displeased than he did before, and the invisible ring that has been cutting into Sokka's chest since he set foot inside Master Piandao's home eases up a little.
What are you doing there?
I watch. I learn. One doesn't follow from the other.
What do you watch?
What I can't have.
What do you learn?
There's more than enough space iron left, but Sokka makes himself a steel sword first. And another. And then another half dozen. Every skill must be honed in experience, and this time he needs the sword to be perfect. It takes him two days of annealing and hammering to mold this one to his satisfaction. By the end he's exhausted, covered in burns, feeling like all the liquid in his body has evaporated though his skin, but it's worth it.
When the sword's all done and cooled down, Sokka takes it outside and sits with it on his knees, tilting the blade this way and that, admiring it. It looks beautiful, too beautiful to be something he created with his own hands.
In movement, Master Piandao's blade looks like no more than a flash of light, qiuck and ephemeral like the dangerous glint of sun on treacherous, melting ice. Sokka's own sword seems to soak the light, to swallow it all up, and only give back a dull, barely there sheen. No matter what he does, even with steel, the blade always comes out a little grainy. He draws his fingers along the flat of the space iron sword again and again, fascinated. If he did this enough times the metal would smoothen like a sea stone lapped by the waves. All it would take is time.
Every morning, Sokka brings his new sword to the roof. He needs to practice his footwork, and it stands to reason that the best place to perfect his balance is somewhere with a sharp slope under his feet and a high danger of injury. He's yet to cut his own throat so he counts the excercise as a success. He shifts and dodges and dances with an invisible enemy - or an invisible partner - with the cool air filling his lungs and dampening the folds of his robes, mixing with the sweat between the strands of his hair. Fighting in the gray dusk with his gray sword he must look like a child playing with an empty hilt, charging with an imaginary weapon and a very real ferocity.
Down on the stone-paved walkway beside the rock garden is where Master Piandao meditates, a still and quiet dark spot on the edges of Sokka's vision. The sun rises little by little, bathes the garden in golden light and brings out the color in Master Piandao's form, the reds and golds and rich browns that contain the essence of the man in that one blurred, manageable impression.
Sokka knows better than to look straight at the sun.
What types of art?
The most important ones. How to keep quiet. How to be still. How to grow. How to conceal the truth without lying.
Isn't that the same?
Not at all. My body shows my mind even when my words don't. I must learn how not to act on want.
It's funny that the grass is tallest on the edge of the ravine. He can come so close he could stretch his arm and drop a stone straight into the river, all without opening his eyes. It's funny that they're called blades of grass. They tickle and stir harmlessly against Sokka's bare feet while he draws in his mind. His eyes are closed, and the darkness inside is his canvas.
There, to the left, three sharp, triangular protrusions on the riverbank. Foam forming at the base of the largest one where the river is fastest. A curving line of low shrubbery winds around the base where thicker soil must have accumulated with time. On Sokka's other side, a lone, asymmetrical tree raises its branches to the sky, with a blackened trunk and a missing bough on the north side. Must have been hit by lightning. The sun's hanging right over it, three, no, three and a half finger lengths from the horizon. Straight ahead a rounded hill hunches in the distance. The winding white road curving through the middle of it makes it look like a squatting, grinning frog. Ragged clouds hang overhead in long ribbons.
Sokka opens his eyes and is satisfied to discover he missed almost nothing. The picture is perfect, far better than if he'd actually painted it. Or at least, far closer to what Master Piandao had wanted that day four years ago, when he'd pushed a blindfolded Sokka to a place further downstream on the same river. It was an exercise for his memory and his strength of observation, not for his technical skill, so Sokka doesn't need to put it to paper and be tempted to add rainbows and giant smiling orange flowers to get better at it.
He turns his back to the river and makes his way down the hillside to where he discarded his sandals, pausing to pick up his sword on the way. Last time Master Piandao had kept them on even ground, probably with consideration to the fact that Sokka tended to trip over his own feet even when he could actually see where he was going. Master Piandao's hand had gripped Sokka's shoulder, no more than an efficient hold. The side of that unseen hand had pressed into Sokka's neck whenever he'd stumbled to the right, but his robe had a collar high enough than he hadn't once felt Master Piandao's skin on his own.
The air had been heavy with the smell of damp earth, a smell to which he'd never been able to become accustomed after growing up on the South Pole, and after a while, with Sokka's own sweat. The exertion and the heat hadn't seemed to affect Master Piandao the same way, and any sound his footfalls made was utterly drowned by Sokka's clumsy plodding and the whisper of his clothes in the wind. For a while it was like being led by a ghost, a disembodied touch clamped on his flesh that felt permanently fused to his body, even if Sokka knew better. Still, when they reached their destination and Master Piandao let go, a wave of disappointed confusion crawled behind Sokka's ribs. His shoulder felt too cold. For a brief, irrational moment he wondered if Master Piandao would just abandon him there.
Painting really does wonders for memory. Sokka can remember the feeling like that touch has only just left him.
I made you well. Who do I complain to if I'm made wrong?
Yes. I want to say everything I'm thinking, the moment it occurs to me. When I do, I invite anyone who might be listening to look through my eyes, to know my mind without limit. That makes me look like a fool. It makes me vulnerable. I must fence my thoughts and sift the ones that are worth uttering.
So? What's wrong with that?
That's not the whole of me. Keeping quiet is the worst kind of loneliness.
Two months in, Sokka wakes up when a bucketful of water splashes all over his head. When he shoots up on his sleeping mat, spluttering, and shakes the wet hair out of his eyes there's no one in the room. Which is why he isn't surprised to see his sister's round face glaring up at him when he leans to look out the window.
The first time he was here, Fat told him that any nighttime excursions outside the walls would result in imaginative disciplinary measures the next day, possibly involving kitchen chores, but that he was welcome to have a stroll in the garden with any paramours nimble enough to jump the wall.
Katara is probably not a paramour, whatever that is, and the meeting amounts to her hissing angrily at him, too impolite to shout in someone else's home. It's nice to see her regardless. Sokka left in a bit of a hurry while Katara was busy helping with the sealing in another village, so he didn't have the chance to say goodbye. Not unless asking Gran-Gran to tell Katara not to get in any trouble while he was gone counted as goodbye. He figured it didn't in Katara's book.
"You're too old to run away from home, Sokka," she says, indignant.
"Which is why it's not running, it's called leaving, and no part of it involves my little sister dragging me back," Sokka answers. His annoyance doesn't match Katara's yet, she has a headstart on him, but he's getting there.
"I wouldn't have had to if you acted your age. I know you've been feeling restless, but that doesn't make it okay for you to abandon your responsibilities," Katara doesn't sound accusing; she sounds like she's trying to be understanding, which makes it infinitely worse.
"I don't have any responsibilities," Sokka declares bluntly, in the hope that being firm will discourage Katara from arguing. It doesn't work; Katara's face switches to the familiar expression that signals that she has a lot of feelings and opinions on the topic at hand and she's going to share them come hell or high water. "Really, I don't. The tribe has enough hunters that one less won't make a difference."
"It's not just that," Katara persists. "You have to be there, to see how Dad does things. You can't expect to become a good chief if you don't see how it's all done, you just can't."
"Like I'm ever going to be Chief, Katara," Sokka spits out, and Katara falls quiet. It's the first time he's said it outright, even though he's sure they have both been thinking it for a while. "You know I won't be, so quit acting so surprised."
Katara studies his face for a minute, the whites of her eyes glowing in the moonlight, before she asks cautiously, "Is this about you not being a bender again?"
"No, it's about the tribe. They need a bender, Katara, and a builder and someone to bring back their sense of tradition. That's not me. I'm more for inventing stuff they aren't interested in, and which wouldn't work in the cold anyway."
"You keep saying they," she sounds resigned but sad and Sokka reaches out a hand to touch her arm. Katara lunges and hugs him then. She's as tall as he is now and she doesn't need to tilt her head back to whisper in his ear, "As long as you're happy here."
Later still, with Katara set off south on a water arrow cutting through the ocean, Sokka lies on his too soft, wrong-smelling sleeping mat, in his too big room, and thinks of Katara, and Gran-Gran, and his father, and the life he almost had with them. A wife and children, long hunts and longer nights buried under furs in a dark, cozy tent, the overwhelming certainty that he'll never be alone. It's not a bad life, if anything Sokka's the one that wasn't good enough for it.
He's glad Katara thinks he's happy. He's not sure he could find the words to explain that he's not happy, that he can't be happy if he's not satisfied with who he is, and that's exactly why he came here.
It's all about potential, he could be more than a decent swordsman, he could be more than an on-the-fly strategist, he could transform an unreachable dream into a reachable goal with enough time and effort. The determination his wants require doesn't, couldn't, stem from contentment. He's not happy, but he thinks he might be some day, and that's enough for him in a way it couldn't ever be for Katara.
Are you lonely?
I'm talking to a sword, aren't I?
Sokka watches the fight, if it could be called that, from the convenient vantage point of the lower pavillion roof next to the training yard. It's past midday and the tiles feel too hot under his feet, but he wanted to see this too much to mind, and he's not sure he would have been allowed to peek in if he'd asked. Master Piandao is a kind man, he probably wouldn't have allowed Sokka to hang around for another's moment of humiliation just for funsies, especially since he's made no move to spar again with Master Piandao himself since he's been here.
The "candidate", as Fat had smugly called him when telling Sokka the news, was much more confident than Sokka had been in his shoes. He seemed to know what to do, where to stand and how to bow without anyone having to explain the simplest things to him, the way Sokka had needed to be instructed. Sokka can see enough of his clothes to know this is no peasant; he must be only a couple of years younger than Sokka, has probably studied years under his household's instructors and only wanted to hone his skills here.
The new guy and Master Piandao finish up with the pleasantries, and the actual fun part starts. The new guy makes the first move, which he probably thinks shows he's decisive. Sokka would think that when coming against the best swordsman in Fire Nation history it would be a good idea to get a feel for his style before charging headfirst, but that's just him. Not that being cautious would have helped the new guy much anyway.
The test lasts longer than Sokka expected it to. Master Piandao is clearly holding back, giving the new guy a chance to demonstrate a wider set of skills. He's too stupid to appreciate it though. He chooses retreat only as a last resort, even when it would have been more to his advantage to step back, and he favors the same type of attack that he clearly imagines shows off his strength, but actually leaves him wide open to a counter. The only reason he's not disarmed yet is because Master Piandao is not taking any of the glaring openings in the new guy's defense.
Sokka slides down the tiles a touch without looking at his feet until he's at the upturned lip of the roof. He thinks the show won't last much longer, and he doesn't want to miss the ending. The thought that this clueless idiot would be taken on is ridiculous, but he needs to be sure.
Finally Master Piandao must have come to a decision, because he finishes the engagement with a movement so fast Sokka might not have caught it if he hadn't given up blinking about ten minutes ago. The new guy's sword clangs and rolls against the stones directly below Sokka, and Master Piandao calmly sheaths his own weapon. He says something to the new guy, but they are too far, half hidden in the bamboo copse for Sokka to be able to hear anything.
Master Piandao walks down the steps without hurrying, looking neither at Sokka nor at the defeated boy, who looks just that - a wide-eyed child, playing at swords - and Sokka has his answer. The whole interlude was just that to Master Piandao, and he's done with it and the boy.
Sokka almost feels bad for him. Almost.
The boy stomps closer to Sokka to retrieve his sword, and even from up here Sokka has no problem discerning the burning resentment in his eyes. He turns to look at Master Piandao's still figure, turned to the garden once more with his back to them both in his habitual position - arms behind his back and his sword held tip up between them. It's the kind of look that makes Sokka widen his stance and tense without thinking. The side of his foot catches a tile and it shatters with a loud clatter on the stone under the eave, only a step or two to the side of the boy's head.
The boy jumps in surprise, before whirling around and craning his neck to look at Sokka, and for a moment Sokka is just glad that the boy wasn't injured due to Sokka's carelessness.
But then the boy's eyes run over him, taking in Sokka's skin, his blue eyes, his gangling, angular body, the clothes that mark him as an apprentice, and Sokka can practically see the insult forming in the back of his eyes, the festering easy hostility and superiority that fits like a well-worn glove. He doesn't even feel the urge to stop the words from coming.
"Whoops. Guess it's true that luck favors the foolish."
It's a good line. He hasn't actually insulted Master Piandao's guest. He could always say he was referring to himself. But the boy gets his meaning, his eyes narrow and his grip on the sword tightens. Sokka waits, but in a second the boy lowers his gaze, head swiveling to Master Piandao's still turned back and he clears out without so much as a word or a bow in Master Piandao's direction.
Sokka waits for the sound of his feet to die down, for any lingering trace of his presence to vanish, before coming down. He dangles from the side of the roof by his fingertips before dropping lightly on the ground.
The garden is quiet now. Master Piandao didn't move during the whole incident, and even now he shows no sign of being aware that Sokka's still behind him. Sokka pads closer to him, as silently as he can, though he's sure he isn't quiet enough that Master Piandao isn't aware of his approach.
He eyes the man in front of him the way other warriors must, wondering if Master Piandao's really done the things people say he has, wondering if Sokka could ever get the drop on him. It won't be today, that's for sure, and that thought tightens the ever-present knot of disappointed, gnawing anticipation in Sokka's belly.
He stops when they're standing next to each other, just shy of touching.
"Can I help you with anything, Sokka?"
"No, Master Piandao. I was just checking the- ah, integrity of the roof. Some of the tiles are a little loose."
Master Piandao fixes Sokka with one of his familiar glances, askance with his eyebrows slightly raised, half amusement, half exasperated disbelief, and waiting doesn't seem nearly as hard anymore.
I'm not the first blade you made and kept for yourself, am I?
No. But you are better than the first one.
It's still best to be one of a kind.
It's different for humans. You don't become one of a kind by being created this way. You build yourself up.
Like everything else, Sokka's calligraphy practice rolls more smoothly with time. He's getting better at this, not as quickly as he'd like to but steadily, and that's enough in light of Sokka's determination to take things one day at a time and not think of how far the bar's set.
He works in silence. It's comfortable and enjoyable, and Sokka feels the mounting excitement of assembling a new invention, only it's himself he's working on now. He sits back after he's finished, mind still so preoccupied with what he was doing that he's too distracted to show surprise when Master Piandao's voice sounds behind him.
"You have improved."
It's a neutral observation, not a compliment, but Sokka still feels justified in preening a little. He turns to beam at Master Piandao and hopefully continue on the topic of his awesome calligraphy skills, when Master Piandao reaches unexpectedly and rests one hand on the top of Sokka's head. His palm is big and warm against Sokka's hair, and the shock of it, the feel of rough skin where his thumb is brushing Sokka's temple, is enough to stop him in his tracks, to send him reeling.
Sokka's eyes move to Master Piandao's face as if pulled, and he knows now for a fact Master Piandao was wrong when he told Sokka he had nothing more to teach him. That face is a lesson in its own right, calm and honest. Aiming for inscrutability doesn't work. The trick is not to have any weaknesses to hide.
"Is there anything you wish to say to me, Sokka?" Master Piandao says and it's not really a question.
Sokka had been sure, had told himself that Master Piandao must know, that there's no way the secrets accumulated over the course of several years couldn't carry over into Sokka's actions, couldn't shine through his eyes. But it was one thing to suspect, however strongly, and another to be confronted with the fact with such disinterested compassion, to be given such a gesture of affection that nevertheless rendered any confession on Sokka's part beyond pointless. Why say anything only to be let down easy?
"No. Nothing," Sokka whispers, averting his eyes. He can't decide whether he wants to shrug the hand off or not. He doesn't move away, he doesn't move at all until he's all alone.
Sokka thinks to himself, no pretense necessary now. I always know where I'm going. It's not that I'm lost. I'm never lost. I'm just looking for shortcuts.
"I'm not a coward."
Master Piandao's fingers pause on the Pai Sho tile, but he doesn't look surprised. He looks like he's prepared to politely give Sokka his full attention, even though Sokka's acting like a crazy person again.
Sokka would have let it go, persevered against any awkwardness he might have felt, because the plan is still valid. He would have, but then it occurred to him Master Piandao probably thought Sokka hadn't said anything because he was afraid, or ashamed of what he wanted, and that is a misconception Sokka just has to correct.
This is just the time some of the subtlety Sokka's infamous for not having would have come in handy. So in the absence of that his tried, tested and failed method of rambling would have to do.
"Say you know this person. A man of unwavering dignity and conviction who towers over you in every possible way, not due to the good fortune to be born with a talent for bending, but through the strength of his character. There are some things you can't ask a man like that. You just can't. Not because you know you'll be refused, or because you're afraid you'll be refused, but because you're not even worthy to ask, you would lose any chance of ever being worthy if you were arrogant enough to ask in that moment," Sokka says in a single breath. He's run out of things to say anyway which is an occurrence so rare as to be unique.
"I see," is all Master Piandao says in answer. At least he doesn't seem amused. He sits back slowly, to all appearances deep in thought.
"Do you know why I agreed to teach you?" he asks, and motions for Sokka to sit down.
"Because you worked out I was traveling with the Avatar?" Sokka offers before complying.
"Because I had grown tired of the people who seek me out. I believed they were all the same. I hadn't met anyone capable of challenging my expectations in a long time."
"So you didn't mean it when you said you saw the makings of a great swordsman in me? You were just bored?"
"I believe you know your worth, Sokka," Master Piandao smiles, really smiles. Only with his lips and rather reservedly, but it's enough to set Sokka's skin alight with sudden fire. "I meant I am not a god. Your respect for me shouldn't make you feel undeserving to talk to me."
"Doesn't mean you want what I want, does it?"
"You wouldn't be the first to mistake admiration for a different feeling."
Sokka thinks this over. Then he leans forward until he's kneeling rather than sitting, lips poised at the corner of Master Piandao's mouth, waiting for a sign, for any indication that this is okay or that he should back off. A hand curves around the bend of Sokka's ribcage, neither pushing him away nor pulling him closer, just supporting him, and Sokka decides this is all the invitation he needs. He turns to capture Master Piandao's mouth and before he knows it they're kissing, deep and quiet and oddly distant, with their mouth the only point of contact.
It's strange, a whirlwind of unfamiliar sensations vying for Sokka's attention - the scratchy feeling of a beard against his face and lips, the distraction of his open eyes when he normally closes them when kissing.
By the time Sokka pulls away his thigh muscles are straining, there are sparks shooting up his spine and his lips feel stung, uncomfortably swollen. Master Piandao's hand falls slowly from his chest, brushing his side in the process as if he's reluctant to let go.
"I'm still not asking," Sokka says, and his voice sounds strange, scratchy and high at the same time. He clears his throat and tries again. "But this definitely isn't just admiration."
"What would it take for you to ask? Do you need to defeat me?" Master Piandao says, looking... curious, maybe, or even intrigued. So not madly in love with Sokka yet, but it's a start. Sokka can work with intrigued.
"Yeah, that would be the day. I don't want to defeat you, I really don't. I want to be equal to you. Closer to equal to you than I am now at least. I'm not ready yet."
"I understand. It is wise to know your own mind and focus on whatever is of first importance." And with this Master Piandao stands up and walks away, unhurriedly, and it's a good thing Sokka knows that when he sounds so overly dry and formal Master Piandao's joking, in his own particular way.
Sokka feels lighter, and also somehow grounded. He wonders if this is what maturity feels like.
Then he remembers he still thinks of his sword as a person and sometimes talks to it, and that he has a long way to go before he can keep this feeling for good.
That's okay too. He has time. The sea always washes the stone smooth in the end.