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The Wise Men

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After the war, and Zuko’s coronation, and the biggest mop-up work, the Gaang separates. Zuko stays in the fire nation, of course, to rule and do whatever non-evil fire lords do. Aang wanders, as the Avatar should, and Katara goes with him, because really, no one expected them to be apart for even a moment. Toph heads back to the Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se, the Earth Rumble, and her family, to advise the Earth King and generally kick butt. Suki goes back to Kyoshi Island, with a kiss for Sokka and a ‘Stop by any time!’ with a clear expectation of ‘any time’ being soon.

Sokka returns to Piandao’s castle.

He’s not ready to go back to the glaciers of the Pole and his almost-too-close tribe, but he doesn’t want to go to Kyoshi and follow Suki around either, or to trail after anyone else. They’re all in their proper places, doing what they ought to be doing with whom they should be doing it. But he—he doesn’t know what his life should be like at sixteen. He does know he has more to learn. So, a few months after the reconquest of Ba Sing Se, Sokki is escorted into Piandao’s sitting room. He kneels.

“I still have much to learn”

Piandao is not surprised. He saw something in the boy who first came to his door with nothing but a willingness to learn and a mind worthy of being taught. He doesn’t remind Piandao of himself, exactly—this loose-limbed, lateral-thinking boy with eyes that have the look of someone who has seen too much too young is very different from the rigid, traditional, almost painfully innocent boy Piandao had been. But Sokka does remind him of others, others who have the same cockeyed, brilliant way of looking at the world that has gained them respect and power. So he smiles at the still young boy and nods. “Yes, you do,” he agrees. And sets about teaching the boy Paisho.

Sokka stays with Piandao for nearly two years. They go through the drills they didn’t have time when he first came, all the mind-numbing exercises that makes a true master. Sokka learns how to use the razor-sharp edges and extraordinary weight of his space sword—“I thought you lost it?” Piandao asked, but Sokka shrugged. “Toph found it while my leg was broken” –and how to use the many weapons Piandao has lying around. Sokka may have come to the sword too late for Piandao’s sheer grace and artistry, but he makes up for that with cunning, force, and the odd boomerang distraction.

They don’t spend all of their time fighting. They talk. Sokka devours the library, then gets Zuko to ship him more, esoteric tomes on everything from philosophy to abstract mathematics to histories. They discuss the philosophy and the history (Piandao took one look at the mathematics and announced he would leave that to Sokka). Sokka tinkers around in the shed Piandao allotted him after one too many explosions in the house. They chat about art, both making and viewing. Occasionally, Aang or Zuko swing by and pick him up for a party or a fight against some of the holdouts against the new peace that still pepper the countryside. And, of course, they play Paisho. It takes Sokka eight months to beat Piandao’s butler.

Sokka goes back home for a visit after one year with Piandao. He adores it—goes fishing with his dad, climbs glaciers, eats the water tribe food that nothing in the Fire nation can quite match. Mindful of his master’s teaching, though, he stays in practice, and spends much of his time sliding on the ice, figuring out how best to use the uncertain footing to his advantage.

Pakku looks warily on his new grandson. He’s not entirely sure what Piandao thinks he’s doing with this loud-mouthed, impetuous youngster, who shows little respect for his elders and might easily get carried away for nothing more than pleasure and emotion and get himself killed. He admits the boy s clever, and can debate philosophy the whole night long, but he worries at that emotional recklessness.

One day, shortly before Sokka leaves, a feral otter-bear attacks a tent on the edge of the village. A child is trapped in there, mewling as the bear paces forward. Pakku rushes there to help—but Sokka gets there first, his face coldly impassive. His black blade flashes once, twice, almost too fast for Pakku to see, and the bear is retreating, whining at its sliced nose. Sokka steps forward with his sword raised, until the bear turns and runs. Sokka watches it go, and Pakku sees the rage and fear in his eyes, the burning desire to run after the dangerous beast, but instead the boy sheathes his sword and scoops up the child, the cold mask of the strategist of the invasion gone beneath a goofy smile. When the panicked mother reaches them, he has the child on his lap, clapping gleefully at the coin Sokka is pulling out of her ear.

That night, Pakku brings out the Paisho board and challenges Sokka. Sokka doesn’t come close to winning, but he prolongs the game well into the night, and once or twice nearly pulls a gambit on Pakku. Once his grandfather defeats him, he grins and shakes Pakku’s hand—then demands to learn the series of moves used to win. Pakku rolls his eyes. The boy still has no respect for his elders and was foolish enough to attack on otter-bear on his own. He teaches him the attack.

It takes Sokka one year, nine months, and twenty-three days to beat Piandao in Paisho. He still hasn’t beaten him in a duel. Piandao smiles, folds up the board.

And sends Sokka on his way. He says that he has no more left to teach him, which Sokka protests is blatantly untrue, because he still loses every time with a sword, and Piandao outshoots him four out of five times, and he hasn’t mastered that lunge Piandao taught him yesterday and—Piandao agrees with all that. And still declares it time for Sokka to leave. He’ll only achieve true mastery in the world.

So Sokka leaves. He still doesn’t want to return to the Pole for good, not right away, but he heads south. He wanders, meanders, practicing and thinking and talking with people on the road. He also fights with them, occasionally—the odd bandits that need crushing, rebels that need smoking out. He builds bridges, dam; he refigures a village’s economic system and judges some old feuds on the authority of Zuko’s friendship and his own cool logic.

Eventually, he makes it to the Fire nation capital. Zuko welcomes him, as always. Another trusted advisor is always welcome, and Sokka doesn’t quite realize the weight his name holds among those who witnessed the invasion.

He spends six month there. He stands at Zuko’s right hand, spars with him, and disappears into the city only to reappear with new information on plots against the Firelord.

Jong Jong watches him. He has returned to the capital gratefully, and now acts in an advisory role—and an ear of the Order. He sees Sokka fight, but also sees him in the library and museums. He hears him talking to the old generals, those who once fought against him and burned his village, and only a hardness in his face, barely visible, reveals his anger against those men. He sees Sokka lay a hand on Zuko’s shoulder during court, reining in their hot-headed young Lord. He sees the boy’s discipline, how his first instinct is to reason, not to fight—and when he fights, he holds nothing back.

So he challenges Sokka to a game of Paisho. Sokka chuckles and accepts. He still has the bravado of youth, and has spent the last years honing his craft—He almost manages to win, but Jong Jong edges him out. Sokka studies the board. “I could have had you, if I hadn’t made that move,” he states simply, without anger or gloating, pointing to a tile placed an hour ago. Jong Jong doesn’t reply. He leaves.

Sokka confesses nervously to Zuko that he might have offended the old man, but Zuko laughs and says that Jong Jong has just told him that Sokka’s time is worth more than he needs, and Zuko should kick him out. So he does. Sokka doesn’t protest. He’s grown tired of the sun-dried hills of the Fire nation. He wants ice and cold and water stretching as far as the eye can see.

He settles easily into the routine of the Water Tribe, though he does it as an adult hunter, a war leader. Pakku studies him. He’s not a loud-mouth boy anymore; now he’s a brash man, who laughs too loudly and at things which ought not to be mocked. He wonders at Jong Jong’s latest letter of approval about the young man.

Until the raiders attack, ex-Fire nation navy that have become pirates. Sokka is everywhere in that defense, shouting out orders, enacting plans he has been making (or so Pakku assumes, because though he has never heard of these new strategies and innovative techniques before, they flow as smoothly as the water Pakku bends). When Sokka snaps a command at him, he obeys, though Sokka is one of the youngest warriors and Pakku the chief waterbender. It’s hard not to listen to him.

Pakku observes him more closely after that attack. He sees the careful deliberateness of his movements as he teaches a young warrior with a club to fight against a swordsman, his blade careful, his voice soothing with only a hint of scathing wit. The boy gazes in awe, even if Sokka doesn’t notice, at the black blade and the man wielding it. When Sokka ‘defeats’ the boy, he pulls him to his feet with a grin, a hearty slap on the back, and a proposal to go get some seal jerky together. Pakku can see in the boy’s star-struck face that Sokka has just won a supporter for life, but he can also see that isn’t why Sokka did it.

They play Paisho that evening. Sokka wins, but barely, and only because he used an old, old trick, one Pakku would never have guess a young man knew.

Sokka doesn’t gloat. Much.

Pakku folds the board and informs his grandson that he is getting restless here. Sokka hesitates a moment, then agrees. He’s not ready to settle down, though he loves it in the South. He has his father’s wandering feet, and a need to find something. He doesn’t know what it is, but he’s still looking for something, and has been since he left the South Pole on Appa’s back five years ago. Pakku suggests Bumi. If anyone knows how to find something if you don’t know what that something is, it’s him.

So Sokka sets off again. He stops by Kyoshi Island on the way. This time, no one’s disappointed when he sails up—Sokka Starblade, on our island! He spends an enjoyable week with Suki, and when they spar, now it’s nearly always a draw. But when he leaves they both know he’s not coming back, not to her. She doesn’t quite know this quiet-eyed man with his deadly sword and restless mind. She’s put down roots and is building a life, but he’s not ready—can’t—be part of it. Neither of them can find it in them to regret the separation, though he leaves with a heavy heart, and when his ship has passed the horizon she retreats to her room to cry over Sokka one last time.

He arrives at Omashu over three years since he last left. He and Bumi hadn’t really gotten to know each other, back them, but they get along famously. Their sense of humor match, and they can appreciate the mad genius in each other. Sokka spends weeks streamlining the mail system and working out a way to figure out how to use it without bending, then moves on to experimenting with the gemite. Bumi approves, and at every explosion laughs, claps his hands, and waits eagerly to hear the new result and whether he can help. They play Paisho almost every evening. Bumi usually, though not always, wins, and destroys most of Sokka’s best laid plans by sheer unpredictability.

He spends four months at Omashu. Then, one night, he beats Bumi at Paisho. Which wouldn’t usually be of that much import, except this time, out of frustration and a bit of curiosity, he did it by being totally and utterly stupid and idiotic and insane. Bumi gives his maniacal laugh, and stomps his foot. The board disappears into the earth. He stomps his foot again. Sokka tumbles into a tunnel. He hurtles down it, Bumi’s yell of “Ba Sing Se!” echoing after him, and ends up outside the city. He yells a few choice words in the direction of Omashu, then sets up camp for the night. When he wakes the next morning, all his gear is piled neatly outside of the raps he always sets around his camp. On top of everything is a packet of White Jasmine tea.

Sokka decides that really, he hasn’t seen Toph in a while, and that’s a shame, because Bumi’s funny but not really witty, not like Toph is. So he heads to Ba Sing Se.

It’s a lot easier this time around. People tend not to bother him. They don’t want to confront the man who face speaks of a few too many secrets and a sword hilt that speaks of much use. When he even bothers to draw his sword, at least half the time his attackers scatter. He assumes he’s not easy enough prey. He hasn’t realized the legends that spread about even him, Sokka Starblade of the South.

So he reaches Ba Sing Se without problem. He has barely set foot in the palace before he is hit with a flying tackle and knocked almost to the floor. His hand reaches for his sword hilt for an instant, and then he hugs back. It’s good to see Toph again.

Even if she isn’t the same girl he remembers. She’s taller, though still not tall, and graceful. She’s a little less tactless and a little less dirty, and sometime in the past four years she’s become a girl, not just a girl. Still, she’s the same old Toph, and she drags him into the palace with the same irresistible grip. She barely gives him half a second to drop his pack before she decides he just has to see her trophy—and maybe fix the leak in her pipe? He sighs theatrically as she leads him to her room, and doesn’t get why, at the last second, she decides they should go to Iroh’s teashop instead. He doesn’t know, despite his vanity, that he has grown as well, and Toph can feel the steadiness of his stride and deepness of his voice, and isn’t sure she wants him to see her room just as fix-my-pipe-now.

So they go to Iroh’s teashop. Sokka isn’t quite sure how to act around this old man who is also a legend. He never knew him like Zuko, or Toph, or even Aang did. But he soon forgets that in his appreciation of the tea, for Piandao taught him well. Iroh appreciates the appreciation.

They’re still there when Iroh brings out the Paisho board. That night, Sokka watches as Iroh demolishes his opponent. He doesn’t play.

He does go down again the next night, however. He studies the game going on, and bites his lip and his eyes narrow. Iroh asks him if he wants to play, and he accepts. He loses. Badly.

When they are done, Sokka looks at the man who once was the pride of the Fire Nation and asks him to please explain the Siege of Ba Sing Se and why he ever expected it to work. Iroh raises his eyebrows, folds his hands across his belly, and tells Sokka to come back tomorrow. It’s too late for an old man like him.

So Sokka does, though Toph scowls at losing her playmate. And they go over the Seige of Ba Sing Se. And other battles of Iroh’s. And many more battles in the days that follow, historical and possible future, and particularly, in excruciating, humiliating detail, those battles Sokka planned, what he did wrong and what he could have done better. Iroh can see the pain in Sokka when he speaks his plans’ faults, faults that cost lives. That pain is at the core of Iroh’s being too.

Sokka spends a lot of time in the teashop in the next month or so. He works—serving tea, never making it, because Iroh incredulously declared that his tea is worse than Zuko’s—and talks. They talk about philosophy and strategy, about fighting and food, but mostly, they talk about life. And they play Paisho. Sokka never wins, but he thinks he’s beginning to lose more gracefully.

After a month and a half, Suko, Aang, and Katara appear in Ba Sing Se. Aang and Zuko have to meets with the Earth King and, well, Aang decided it was time for a reunion. Iroh sees Sokka with his family, joking with Aang, pulling Katara’s pigtails, helping toph prank Zuko. He also sees Aang pull him aside to ask his advice on the Earth King’s meeting, and how Katara nearly falls into her brother’s arms, the private little grins he and Toph share, and the easy way he and Zuko split leadership of the little Gaang.

That night, Sokka spends with his friends, not with Iroh. Iroh sends out a lot of messenger hawks.

The next day, Aang and Zuko have meetings, and Katara and Toph claim there’s a spa they need to revisit. Sokka is once more left at loose ends. So he wanders into the teashop.

Iroh is sitting at a table, sipping a cup of tea. There’s another on the table, and a pot sending wisps of steam into the air. Iroh smiles when Sokka comes in, and gestures to the other cup.

Sokka is not surprised when Iroh pulls out a Paisho set. But he is when Iroh speaks before opening the game. “You have been searching for a purpose,” he states.

Sokka nods.

“And have you found it yet?”

“No.” Sokka sighs and reaches over his shoulder to rub his boomerang reflexively. “I’m still looking.”

Iroh peers searchingly at the man. He sits in well-worn blue leather, his namesake sword leaning against the chair beside him, within easy reach, and his boomerang on his back. He has the body of a fighter, scarred and lean, but the eyes of a scholar, always looking, watching, evaluating. Behind those eyes, Iroh knows, has seen, has been told, lies an ever-curious mind, a mad genius, an iron discipline, a fierce love, and a laughingly just soul.

Iroh smiles, a secret smile, just to himself, and lays a single tile on the center of the board. “This,” he says, falling unconsciously into the rhythm of a ritual, “is the White Lotus Gambit. Do you wish to learn?”

Sokka leans forward, an odd sense of expectations growing, one that a less scientific mind might call the hand of destiny bearing upon him. “Yes. I wish to learn the way of the White Lotus.”