Apparently even the disaster with Zuko and the Unagi and an entire burning village wasn't enough to keep Aang from getting sidetracked. Sokka had taken charge of the map a long time ago but it didn't make a bit of difference. He might fall asleep for even a couple of minutes, really just an extended blink if you thought about it, and Appa would suddenly be heading towards yet another place completely irrelevant to their itinerary. At this rate they would never reach the Northern Water Tribe. They wouldn't even get out of the Earth Kingdom, which was ridiculously dangerous, because that maniac Zuko was hot on their heels, still, and okay so Sokka couldn't literally feel it, but figuratively speaking, the scalding breath of the Fire Nation down the back of his neck was making him kinda nervous.
He hemmed and hawed and dragged his feet but Aang was insistent and skilled in the art of guilt trips, and Katara gave in way too easily, so here they were making camp. On top of a mountain, no less. The site was very impressive, not that Sokka thought so personally; a snowy field which curved like the palm of a hand between four rocky outcroppings, the ocean a narrow gleam in the distance. But it was really high up, above the tree-line, and Sokka couldn’t help but think this might not be such a good idea. At the very least because the four bare peaks rained down icy gravel whenever the wind blew, or Aang got particularly excitable, both of which were happening right now.
"This is an ancient sacred site for Air Nomads." Aang said, and airlifted to the top of one of the boulders at the foot of the nearest outcrop. He re-directed the small shower of rocks with a swipe of his hand and Sokka flinched. "Gyatzo once told me that this is where the Four Winds meet, represented by the four directions. See, here’s the White Tiger, the symbol for the west.” He pointed up above their heads, to a tiger-like shape carved into the flat rock surface, “My people used to gather here and meditate to get closer to the true spirit of airbending.” He paused, and his enthusiastic tone faltered, “I would have gone with him, when I came of age.”
Sokka rolled his eyes, even as he felt bad, "That's great and all, but does every Air Nomad place have to be so...so inconvenient?”
"Not inconvenient at all, since we have Appa." Aang chirped. Which was completely beside the point.
They split up and went exploring. There were definitely more pleasant places Sokka could imagine spending the night. He didn't mind the cold and snow separately, but in combination with an absolutely furious wind (or winds??), it was hard to get into the spirit of things. Aang appeared to be having no such trouble.
“Look at this, guys!” Aang’s voice boomed across the field, projected by the wind. When Sokka and Katara joined him, he pointed up to another symbol carved into the rock-face, “The Northern Tortoise. Won’t this be useful for navigating, Sokka?”
Sokka refused to be placated so easily, “Sure, yeah. If we ever actually made any progress. And besides, I can navigate perfectly well on my own.”
“It’s going to get dark soon.” Katara said reasonably, “So even if we hadn’t stopped here, we’d still only have managed another hour or two of flying. Why not settle in for the night?”
“Fine, fine…” Sokka and the others explored in relative peace for a little while longer until Katara found a stream, more of a spring really, cascading down from the Southern Phoenix outcrop, collecting in a series of small pools and disappearing into the dense forest below. She put out a call for dirty clothes. Quite frankly, Sokka saw no reason for them to do laundry now. Nothing he owned was that dirty, except for the lingering acrid scent of smoke, and this was just a pit stop (okay, an extended pit stop) before they got on their way for real. He tried to sneak away and hide behind Appa, just for a little while, but she caught him and Sokka found himself digging through his pack and eventually stripping to surrender his underclothes to her outstretched and impatient hand.
"I don't stink that bad, do I?" Sokka asked Appa, and was gratified to hear his answering rumble, "Yeah, I thought so."
Sokka pulled his anorak and boots back on over bare skin and sat beside the stream with Aang to watch Katara try (unsuccessfully) to waterbend the laundry. He knew better than to complain about the cold, because nothing, nothing was colder than where they’d come from. But his legs were still getting kinda chilly. And all the splashing water wasn’t helping. He’d just opened his mouth to say something he might regret when Katara turned to him and said, “If you’re just going to sit there gaping like a fish, why don’t you do something useful and gather some firewood?”
"Why me?" He said, and actually felt his voice splinter and leap as he said it, "Why can't Aang do it?"
"Because he needs to stay here and watch my technique." She answered, making a slightly larger splash for emphasis. Aang's innocent nod was ruined by a huge grin, "Yup, that's right."
"Fine!" Sokka didn't storm off, but he certainly could have. If he was the kind of guy who sulked. No. He was glad to be on his feet again, get the blood flowing. And, uh, scope out any possible threats and neutralize them. Right. The forest began where the curving field dropped off; sheer sides without even a path to guide him. The sudden transition from open and light, from a luminous grey horizon stretching in every direction, to the closed shelter and dark green gloom of the forest was startling. He felt like he'd walked into another world, all stillness and silence and fir trees. Not even a hint of the four winds buffeting the peak. There was something kinda spirity about it. Sokka shook his head. These weren't useful thoughts to be having right now, or ever. His mission was safety, firewood, and maybe a little something to cook for dinner. At the thought of dinner his mood brightened considerably.
He found it while he was hunting. Okay, while he was trying to hunt, which was a lot harder than anyone gave him credit for. Katara might be perfectly happy to eat vegetarian 'food' until the end of time, but Sokka was a growing boy and needed meat. It was the only thing that quelled the constant hunger gnawing at his stomach. And he deserved it. He'd already assembled a good-sized pile of firewood, if he said so himself, and persuaded Aang to start the fire for him. With two benders in the group, the laundry got washed and dried a lot quicker than it normally would have, so dressed in a fresh pair of trousers and tunic beneath his anorak, Sokka went back into the forest intent only on coming back out with something to show for his hard work.
After two near-successes, he was starting to get tired and the shadows cast by the trees had doubled in length. It was probably time to head back, just in case Katara started worrying or something. He turned to retrace his steps when he heard a rustling somewhere in the undergrowth. He froze and tried to listen more carefully, but his heartbeat kept getting in the way. There it was again…a frantic rustling, twigs snapping. His pulse leaped, and he reached for his boomerang. It sounded huge, like a…a gorilla goat or something. He crept forward, the sharp edge of his boomerang digging into his fingers, and took a deep breath before violently parting the closest bush and peering beyond it. Nothing. He couldn't have been imagining things, could he? He looked again, and there was…something. It twitched.
A bird with one large outstretched rust-red and white wing lay motionless on the snowy ground. He wasn't sure if it was dead or not. The animal who was attacking it must have gotten away... He tried to ignore the sinking feeling of disappointment, the twisting ache in his stomach. Not that he would have preferred a gorilla goat, but still... Just as suddenly as it had fallen silent, the bird began to flap its wing frantically, skidding through the snow in a circle, unable to lift off. He caught a glimpse of its clever yellow eyes and strong curved beak. A hawk! This was even better, unbelievably, than an actual kill. A hawk could be trained to hunt for him, could bring in twice the amount of game. He knelt beside the bird and reached out to grab it, but jerked his hand away when it tried to bite his mitten.
“Hey, that wasn't very nice.” He said, scowling, “I’m not going to hurt you. You’re too scrawny to eat, anyway.” At this, it nipped his sleeve like it could understand him. There was some kind of strap or harness around the hawk’s neck, but he couldn't see it clearly. If he could just get a little closer…And then he had an idea.
Pulling off his anorak, he thanked it for its many years of faithful service, and gently wrapped it around the bird, which began to squirm and shriek, claws digging into the fur. Sokka restrained the bird against the ground with his forearm and pried off the strap with quick fingers. There was something attached to it but he shoved it into his pocket without a glance. He’d take another look later. For now, he picked up the struggling bundle and made his way back up the slope, trying not to lose his balance and constructing arguments in his head. Aang and Katara could laugh at him all they wanted for failing to live up this one time to his reputation as an excellent hunter. He was making a long-term investment.
The only problem, besides a teensy bit of arguing about sudden whims and dangerous birds of prey, was that the bird was injured. It was pretty obvious, and Sokka had definitely noticed back in the forest, but it didn't seem to matter at the time. Katara insisted, however, that it did matter.
“I thought you were good at healing things. I know Mom— I mean Gran Gran taught you some stuff...Can’t you figure out what to do?” He asked helplessly. The bird was still pretty unhappy, but at least it had stopped trying to claw them to death. Instead, it was just lying in Sokka’s anorak looking at them shrewdly with its yellow eyes.
“I’m not a healer, I have no idea what to do!” Katara said, and stalked away to start dinner, her back tense. He was going to tell her about what the bird was carrying, the strap and the tube and the medallion, but if she was going to act like this... It was totally unreasonable for her to get mad, anyway. If anything, she should be flattered Sokka placed so much faith in her abilities. Sokka looked at Aang, who shrugged.
“You could try…splinting it or something?” He suggested.
Sokka rolled his eyes but got to work. If Katara wasn't going to help him, he’d just have to do it himself.
Several hours and quite a few bruises later, Sokka lay back in his sleeping bag and stared up at the blank sky above him, waiting for the others to fall asleep. The wind was whistling forlornly around the four peaks, scattering sparks still rising from the fire-pit, and tugging Sokka's hair free from his wolftail. Sokka forced his eyes to stay open and resist the urge to sink blissfully into sleep. He had to listen for the tell-tale change in breathing. It didn't take long. As soon as he was confident he wouldn't be disturbed, Sokka moved closer to the fire and took the strap out of his pocket to inspect it. What he thought at first was just one strap actually turned out to be two, designed to cross over the hawk's chest, joined by a red medallion. Whatever had attacked the bird also snapped the second strap and gouged the sturdy leather with its claws. A small metal tube with a cap hung loose from the back of the harness. A message carrier. So, his unfriendly new pet was a messenger hawk of some kind. At least he knew now the bird was trained, if not for exactly his purposes. Sokka's fingers fumbled to uncap it, hoping for a letter.
He was in luck. Sparing no thought for the twinge of guilt he felt about reading someone else's private correspondence, Sokka unfolded the paper and tilted it to catch the light from the embers. His excitement died like it'd been doused with water when he saw the text. Characters flowed together sloppily down each line as if made with one long exaggerated brush stroke. It could be written in another language for all he knew. Still, if he squinted...the loops and lines transformed into something more recognizable. It was just calligraphy. Really fancy calligraphy. Not like what he’d been taught in school, although admittedly, Sokka hadn't been to school in a long time.
I usually burn my letters without sending them since I know you will never receive them, but tonight I thought, why not? At least now I can hope.
I miss you. I miss you all the time. I wish you hadn't left. If you were still here, none of this would have happened. You would have found a way to stop it, no matter what it took. NOT that I need protection, but it would have been —
Things are not going at all well with me. Big surprise. Uncle says I should be more patient, but I think he just says that to slow me down. He tries to undermine my progress all the time. He won’t even let me advance beyond the basic forms, and it’s been years! I know he doesn't really support me. He just doesn't understand. You would. You always did.
But how do I really know that? It’s been such a long time, and I’m a different person now. Maybe you are too.
I hope wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you remember me. I hope you’re well. I love you, Mother.
Sokka knew from the start that he shouldn't, this letter wasn't meant for his eyes, but he just couldn't stop himself. Not out of prurient curiosity, at least not anymore. He kept reading because he couldn't count how many times he wished he could put the feeling of loss into words, notoriously tricky things that they were, instead of carrying it around like an empty space inside him wherever he went, whatever he did. It was hard, no, it was impossible to fill that space all by himself. Even if he tried really hard. Even if Katara was trying really hard too. Sokka closed his eyes and tried to picture his mother’s face. All he could come up with was a vague image of her blue amaat, the ticklish white fur at her wrists, her brown hands serving him a bowl of stew. Somewhere above his head she was smiling, but he could only remember being hungry and happy to be fed in the warm blue-white circle of her arms, their home.
The memory of his father’s departure was much clearer. But he didn't want to think about that right now. He couldn't, not when he’d already been thinking about Mom, otherwise he might… This was why he didn't want to be the feelings-guy. Sokka blinked his eyes several times in rapid succession, glad no one was awake to see him, then folded the letter back up and tucked it safe inside his pack. Once the messenger hawk healed, Sokka would return the bird to whoever owned it. It was the only decent thing to do. Maybe he’d even write a short message to send along with it. Might do the other guy some good to know he wasn't the only one who…well, that someone else out there understood.
He was just about to crawl back into his sleeping bag before he remembered he’d left the message carrier by the fire, and went to go get it. He took one last look at the harness with its tooled leather and gleaming hardware, and suddenly everything in his body prickled with an intense unpleasant heat. Painted in black on the red metal medallion was the curved and rising flame of the Fire Nation insignia.