They could have lost each other...but they didn't. But now something's coming between them again.
She knew all this, but it did not help her nerves one bit.
Taking a deep breath, she reached out and slid the door open. The room beyond was dark, as dark as night. There were no torches lit, nor candles, and the room's few windows opened only out on the dark night sky. It took her eyes a few minutes to adjust to the gloom. When it did she could make out the shape of a tall, powerful man, battering away at a target bag with the precision and strength that came only from years of intense training.
"Hello, Katara," Sokka said as he battered the unfortunate sandbag. "How was the feast?"
"It was good," she said, rubbing her arms. The room was freezing cold, even through her thick furs, but Sokka, stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat, seemed not to notice. "We missed you. You should have been there with us, instead of sulking in here."
"I...am not sulking," Sokka said as he hit the practice dummy twice in the face and then sank a foot into its 'gut'. "I am training."
"Sokka, I know just as well as you do that when you sulk, you train. You and father are both like that."
Sokka did not reply. The silence was broken only by the sound of his heavy breathing, the impact of his fists and feet upon the practice dummy, and the patter of rain on the roof and windows. It was said to be a bad omen for it to be raining on the day of a wedding; Katara hoped it let up before tomorrow.
"Sokka, Yue-" Katara began, but Sokka cut her off without breaking rhythm for a moment.
"I know what you're going to say, Katara. I know you're going to try to explain to me why Yue's doing this, why it needs to happen, all of that, like I'm some kind of idiot who can't understand it without it being spoonfed to me. Well you're wrong. I do understand. I understand everything very clearly. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any easier to take."
Sokka struck the dummy with an open-palmed blow that knocked the head clear off of it. He twisted and kicked out disdainfully, knocking the decapitated dummy onto the floor with a clatter. He turned away from it and grabbed a towel he had draped over a chair, mopping up the sweat from his brow.
"She really does love you, you know."
"Yeah, I know that too," Sokka said as he dropped the towel again. "I just can't decide if that makes it better or worse."
Katara walked up to him and embraced him tightly. There was strength underneath that fancy dress, and more bending prowess than you could shake a stick at, but beside his rock-solid musculature she seemed like a frail dwarf. Tears leaked from her eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Sokka. I wish there was some other way!"
"It's all right," he said, holding her tight for a moment before releasing her. "I don't blame you." That was true. He knew that it had not been her idea, and that she'd done everything she could to prevent it. Being the Avatar's companion gave you quite a lot of pull...but not enough for this. Not by half.
Sokka turned back to his training, pulling a spear off the wall. Katara walked to the doorway, then turned to face him again.
"Good night, Sokka."
"Good night, Katara," Sokka responded, pulling the spear up into a combat position and beginning one of a hundred repetitions. The door slid shut again, plunging the room into total darkness once more.
Just the way I want it, Sokka thought.
This was his oldest way of dealing with problems, and still the most effective. Even when he was a boy, if he was upset about something, his father would take him aside and train with him for an hour or two. Hakoda was of the opinion that there was no problem that wouldn't seem so severe after an hour of beating the stuffing out of something.
And, normally, it worked for him. But tonight it seemed only to focus him, to make him even more aware of what he would be losing in less than a day's time. And so he trained harder, trying to drown out his problems with a series of repeating motions.
Cut. Cut. Cut. The same movement, over and over. Mastering it, adding it to his expansive combat vocabulary. The muscles in his arms burned, begging for a chance to relax, but he kept at it, letting the pain wash over him, purifying him.
It was so unfair. He had fought for peace. He had nearly died for it. He had an enormous white scar on his abdomen where a Fire Nation soldier had put a hole big enough for a grown man to stick his fist through during the seige of the northern water tribe. He had killed the man who wounded him, but if he hadn't managed to drag himself to the Spirit Oasis, and if his sister hadn't found him...
But he had survived. Through some whim of fate, the world had aligned in just such a perfect manner that he could survive what should, by all rights, have killed him. And then, when he awoke, she was there holding his hand.
Lightning struck outside, illuminating the room for a few moments, and then he saw them. Eight men, skulking in the shadows, weapons at their sides. He'd been so focused on his training that he hadn't notice them coming in. He wasn't even sure how they had entered without alerting him. He would be sure to ask them later.
He smiled as his Tritons surged forward as one to subdue him.
The Tritons were his elite strike force. The Southern Water Tribe's nine mightiest warriors, with him as the leader. They had been trained to be able to hide in a shadow, to strike without making a sound, and to defeat forces that outnumbered them by far. All across the battlefront, the distinctive facepaint of the Screaming Tritons was recognized and rightly feared and respected by warriors of all four nations.
Ordinarily, Sokka could take one of them, possibly two. On the best day of his life, he'd managed to take down three of them in a training match. He had managed to take four of them down once, but they never spoke about that as it happened when he was the only one both armed and within a stone's throw of sobriety.
But today, Sokka was so focused on dealing with what was happening, that all of them together never really stood a chance.
He cracked the handle of his spear across the side of the nearest one's head, sending him sprawling into another one and sending them both slewing off balance. He brought it back around and slipped it between another's legs, flipping him on to his back.
He twisted the spear sideways, blocking a downwards blow, then threw his attacker off and planted a foot in his abdomen, sending him crashing to the floor. He ducked low and spun about backwards, dragging his spear around to trip up his opponents. Three of them stumbled, and he brought a foot around to finish the job.
Sokka assaulted the nearer of the remaining two with the flat of the spearblade, striking firs tthe hands and forearms before sending him sprawling with a blow to the temple. Then he whirled and stuck the point of the spear against the last one's throat.
He stepped back, throwing his spear away. He stood in the center again as they pulled themselves back onto their feet. The first round had been an utter humiliation to them, but there would be more. Man, many more.
"Again," he said, and they surged forward once more.
He had met Yue several months before the siege, when he was dispatched to the great city of the Northern Water Tribe to oversee the fortification of its defenses. He had at first thought it a worthless job, one beneath him. He belonged with his Tritons, on the front lines, not hiding in the back digging ditches. But one look at Chieftain Arnook's daughter had changed everything. They certainly didn't make girls like that back in the Southern Water Tribe: wrong hair color, for one thing.
Of course, a regal woman like her could never be interested in a peasant from the Southern Water Tribe, no matter how good her was at fighting. But, somehow, she was! They found themselves making excuse after excuse to see each other, and then at last in the final weeks as the Fire Nation armada bore down on them, abandoned all pretense and and began seeing each other romantically. If her father had any objections, he swallowed them rather than risk insult to the man in charge of the Southern Water Tribe troops who were crucial to the defense of the city.
That battle had almost cost Sokka everything. Yue, when a covert force of powerful firebenders wearing blue demon masks infiltrated the city through it's extensive tunnel systems and attempted an assassination on the Chieftain and his family. Only he and three of his Tritons stood between them and their targets. His own life, when he had pursued the fleeing assassins across the rooftops and was mortally wounded by their leader. And they had nearly lost the war when Fire Nation forcespushed the fight through the outer wall and threatened to take the city itself.
But, somehow, none of that happened. There had been so many ways that Sokka and Yue could have lost each other in that battle, but through luck and fate they had both survived. There was nothing that could come between them now.
And yet...something had.
Sokka and his men stopped sparring as the door slid open again, shining bright light into the room. Sokka recognized the man silhouetted in the doorway, and he bit his tongue in anger. Is he here to gloat over me? he wondered as the man stepped into the room.
"Men, you are dismissed," Sokka said. The eight Tritons stood up, and filed out in silence. They closed the door behind them, plunging the room into darkness once more.
"I'm happy that you are enjoying the use of our facilities," the man said. "I'm curious, was it a deliberate insult that you did not attend the wedding feast, or just a scheduling oversight on your part?"
"Neither," Sokka said, picking his spear up off of the ground.
"Of course," the newcomer said. "I'm told you are quite a powerful warrior. Care for a match?"
"If you want."
The man walked over to the racks of weapons and selected a pair of broadswords. He brought them up into a guarded position. Lightning flashed, illuminating the hated, scarred face of the man who was taking Yue away from Sokka.
No, not Prince. Not any more. Fire Lord Zuko.
"No bending," Zuko promised.
"As you wish," Sokka said. He cared little for Zuko's bending abilities. He had defeated more men than he could count, both benders and non-benders.
Zuko attacked, swinging both broadswords in a wide, graceful pattern. Sokka deflected the blows with the point of his spear, then thrust forward, forcing Zuko to dodge backwards to avoid the blow.
"I understand if you're angry about this," Zuko said as he caught Sokka's thrust between his blades. "I don't want to do it any more than she does. But we have to."
"Go to hell," Sokka said, slipping past Zuko's guard to rap him across the knuckles of his left hand. Zuko grimaced and lost his grip. The blade tumbled to the floor.
"I only have the support of two of the five Ruling Houses!" Zuko continued, ignoring Sokka's epithet. "I may be Fire Lord, but without their support I won't be able to hold on to power, and then it'll be war again, for another hundred years! And the other three Houses won't support the treaty unless a member of the Water Tribe royalty marries into our family, for insurance purposes. And as Yue is Chief Arnook's only daughter-"
"Shut up!" Sokka shouted, stabbing forward with his spear, but his rage made him overcommit. Zuko ducked under it, snatching his blade from where it had fallen, and then kicked upwards, sending Sokka reeling backwards. He leapt up to his feet, bringing both swords forward on the attack.
Sokka caught both swords on the shaft of his spear, pushing forward to try and push Zuko off, but the newly-crowned Fire Lord was having none of that. Zuko was good, Sokka had to admit, and he had clearly realized that getting close up would prevent Sokka from bringing his weapon to bear. If he'd ever fought a Triton before, he would have known how wrong he was.
Sokka's left thumb pressed against a hidden catch, and there was a clatter as the spearhead fell off. The shaft split in the middle, and Sokka pulled the two halves apart, revealing two swords hidden inside, each using one half of the shaft as a handle and the other as a sheath.
Zuko stumbled back in surprise as Sokka pushed his broadswords aside and attacked. All four blades clashed and sparked in the darkened room as lightning flared outside.
I could kill him right now, Sokka realized. He's good, but I'm better. I could just call it a training accident. These training weapons were dull, but not that dull. If he wanted to, he could do it.
But no, he realized as they fought. If he did that, it would mean that all the battles and sacrifices made to earn this peace were for nothing. The death of the Fire Lord at the hands of a Water Tribe soldier, especially under his own roof, would shatter that like a piece of fragile pottery. And Zuko, damn his eyes, was right about Yue, too. If this peace was to last, he had to let her go.
Sokka kicked out, catching Zuko's instep, throwing him off balance. He struck with his other foot, driving it into Zuko's opposite shoulder, shoving him down to the earth. one sword flashed out, and Zuko found a blade at his throat.
Sokka pulled his sword back and slid the two together, reforming the shaft. He grabbed the spearhead off of the ground and slid it back into place with a /click/. Zuko returned the two blades to the rack, and then turned to face Sokka once more.
"Don't think that you're the only one who going through this," he said. "I have someone too. I'll miss her. A lot. But it has to be done, and I won't have you going behind my back with her. If that gets out, it'll destroy this peace as surely as cancelling the marriage will. Even if you don't care about that, I know she does."
Zuko turned and walked towards the door. Just as he reached the exit, he stopped and looked over his shoulder as Sokka.
"The marriage isn't until tomorrow. If I were you, I would make the most of your last night with her."
And then he pulled the door open, and stepped out past another silhouette who had been standing outside, waiting for them to be finished. As she stepped in to the room Sooka's heart leapt into his throat, and he realized all over again how much he loved her and how much it was going to hurt to say goodbye.
But he didn't have to do that just yet.
She held him tight, pressing her face against his bare chest. For a minute they just held each other, luxuriating in the other's closeness. Then Yue's nose wrinkled.
"You're really sweaty, lover."
"Oh. Well, maybe I should take a bath," Sokka said with a grin. "Care to join me?"
"That sounds like a nice start," Yue said, and then she pulled his face down and kissed him. Sokka banished all thoughts of tomorrow and the loss that would bring as they moved to find a good bath.
Tomorrow could wait.