A. N. : Today's announcement is a bit... different from my usual, but well. I'm going to be taking a ~2 months break from Viper-lizard starting from now. Obviously I'll still be answering comments and the like but just... honestly there's a lot I could say, but the main thing is that I love this story, and I don't want to burn myself out on it. So, I'll be seeing you all again for next chapter on August 2nd, 2022 ! Hope you guys enjoy what I'm leaving y'all with in the meantime !

They make their way back slowly.

Their clothes are still drenched, and even though this place is way warmer than home, it's also ridiculously humid, and so Suki's prison garb can't seem to dry. Toph's pants look like they're made of thinner, more delicate fabric, and they don't cling to her leg so much anymore, on the other hand.

It didn't feel like such a long trek when Suki made it, lost inside her own head and nearly running as she was.

Things are slower now. Less like a grand escape and more like a nice walk, less of a march to the frontlines, more purposefully losing oneself with a friend to make things last for as long as possible.

It's not just so their clothes have the time to dry. Not just so Toph can teach Suki the basics of the codes and they can whistle them again and again, sparrow-hawk, red-tailed forest dove, tawny-swallow, alive and well back and forth like a chant, like a promise.

They'll get stronger together. They have each other's back.

Suki will live. Has to, doesn't have a choice in the matter. Doesn't have to carry that weight herself.

They whistle, and walk, and when they reach the camp and Katara fusses and asks what happened, why their clothes are wet, why Toph's face is bruised – Toph laughs and slaps Suki's back and says they fell in a river.

Suki has to live, but she doesn't have to tell anyone she almost didn't. She smiles meekly as Katara dries her off. Thanks Katara and gets a don't worry about it in return.

She won't worry Katara, or any of the others. Won't be pitied either.

Toph jokingly complains – of course she does – when Katara heals her and tells her to be more careful. She'd made a face when Suki tried to apologize, said that she'd have done the same if someone grabbed her like that. An elbow to the face is honestly nothing, she'd said, and Suki chose to believe that.

That kind of thing happened at home during training, too. Small injuries are fine, just apologize and move on, that's what she taught her sisters, and so that's what she forced herself to do.

Move on and do your best to ensure it doesn't happen again.

She can't do that with Sokka, however. Can barely bring herself to look at him, even as he smiles at her from his seat against Prince Zuko's back, who seems to be meditating – or maybe just watching his child as she crawls around in an effort to catch Momo, like a normal father would.

A normal father who burned down Suki's village for the love of his own genitor.

She looks away. Asks Katara if there's anything she can help with, anything to make it look like she isn't avoiding Sokka and the weight of her guilt – not her fault, not her fault, he's just far too kind for his own good, like the rest of them, jumping into danger for the sake of someone who simply happened to be her, not her fault, not her guilt to bear but she just can't help it – anything to keep him from worrying.

Before Katara can answer, though, a cloud descends from the sky, carrying Aang and Jet and Appa inside. They bring food and water and clothes, none of which they paid for, because Aang found friends and his smile is so bright and warm that it's contagious, and before Suki knows it they're all listening to him talk about his old friend Ukon and the Sea Walkers he belonged to – traders from before Oyaji's time, Suki understands, remembers old stories of braided and colorful merchants who wouldn't anchor in the harbor like the others – all while carrying the goods and sorting them, planning future meals for the week, packing and putting away and prepping tonight's food and –

Katara compliments Aang's new scarf and he blushes and plays with the long fabric in embarrassment, and Suki wants to pat him on the back and tell him to hang in there. He's so obvious, it's honestly kind of cute.

Jet calls out to her before she can decided whether she wants to tease Aang or not, holding up a bundle of clothes. He chose them, he tells her, so she better not complain – his eyes twinkle playfully when he adds that, and she answers in kind with a can't be worse than prison fashion and a laugh.

He turns serious as he hands Suki her new clothes, though. She's done with prison now, he says. She's free.

And she thinks – not quite. Not quite yet. Still…

It's truer than it used to be.