Toph's mind had been taken on a pleasure cruise down a trickling stream. She delighted in the tickling, meticulous sensations as her puffy mass of frizzy hair, freshly washed and dried, was now being carefully woven into a long braid. Her head knelt down, shoulders relaxed, feet sticking out into the air without a care for what rumbled beneath them, she soaked in these delightful touches without words for a few minutes. She felt as if at some point her hair had been braided before, but she couldn't recall when, or how, or what it felt like. If it had, it would've been by a servant, certainly not her mother. She found her mind wandering around all manner of locations, from her squeezing hug from Aang the night prior to the calming pulse of Katara's heartbeat to the flexing muscles of Sokka's chest as he swam. There were so many things to touch all around her, it made her wonder why she had been so reluctant to do such things before.
Toph was wrapped in late morning beams of heat, her palms planted in the dry, warm grass, gentle and deliberate fingers twisting through her hair, her belly full of delicious potato and carrot stew, the scents of various field flowers melding together to add a sweet tint to the wafting breezes...It was almost midday and it was quite a delightful day, at that. Toph couldn't remember the last time she had specifically felt that way about any day.
"So what made you want to put your hair in a braid?" Katara probed. Toph could sense a sly suspicion in her voice. She knew something was strange about the idea coming from Toph's head. "You usually don't care about your hair all that much..." Toph was glad her back was turned to Katara, as her mind immediately skipped around to its recollection of Sokka's suggestion and she was sure she was probably blushing a bit. It was a curse at this point.
"I dunno," she lied coolly. "Just felt like trying something different, I guess."
"Uh-huh," Katara replied with a slow and suspicious tone. Crap. She was onto Toph's secret, wasn't she? She would be. No matter how hard Toph tried to keep her business her own, Katara always seemed to worm her way into her head. "So is there a boy back home you're trying to look pretty for?" Wait, what? Oh-ho, she thought she was so sneaky, huh? Maybe she wasn't so smart, after all!
"Wh-what? Psh. Please."
"Oh, come on," Katara insisted, continuing her intricate hair-crafting without skipping a beat. "What's his name? Did you meet him during the festival in Ba Sing Se when the war ended?" She could feel her face cooling down as Katara lost the trail.
"N-no, there wasn't anybody...I don't-" She was mumbling, making it all too easy for Katara to start guessing.
"Oh, is it that little guy? The Duke?"
The Duke? Who the hell was that? Sounded like a total dweeb.
"Ya know...The Duke."
Nope. Nothing. She was drawing a total blank. Snap, snap, snap. Katara was flicking her fingers, grasping for a point of reference.
"Um, um...Oh! There was one time we were on a boat, and you got all seasick. He gave you his helmet so you could throw up in it."
Blech. Just the thought of being seasick was making her dizzy. She utterly abhorred the feeling, it was one of the most disorienting and uncomfortable sensations she had ever experienced. She didn't really remember a boat ride or anyone she had talked with, it was just a blur of feeling ill and dazed.
"Nope," she muttered, drumming her fingers into the soft ground beneath the blades of grass. "Don't remember him."
"Really?" Katara seemed taken aback. "He was so nice to you." Toph could hear the pity in her voice with just a tinge of disappointment that she wasn't recollecting. "He let you puke in his helmet, for crying out loud. And he was always running around, getting you water and a blanket and everything. You really don't remember him at all?" Toph merely shrugged in reply. She had nothing more to say.
Sokka's words echoed through her mind: 'She acts all tough all the time and...not sensitive and uncaring.' Her heart sank an inch. Was she really that bad? So what if she didn't remember some kid's name? That didn't make her a jerk...And what if she was a jerk? Huh? She was allowed to be! Who cared?
I care if I'm a jerk...Ugh. Not used to this.
She sighed in spite of herself, having kind of trailed off of the topic in her head. Katara let out a laugh from behind.
"Well, I guess it's not him," she concluded, humored by her own lack of accuracy combined with Toph's insensitivity. "Who is it, then?" she wondered. "Is it someone I know?"
Urk. Oh, yep. That was Toph's heart forgetting to pump for a second there. Crap. Crap-crap-crap! What should she say? Lie? Lie. Yea. Lie.
"Aha!" Katara triumphantly cheered, going back to her braiding. "I knew it. It is. You're getting all nervous about it."
Damnit. This wasn't her business! Toph appreciated the night before, she appreciated this, she was thankful for this re-awakening of interest in her well-being and how she was actually able to enjoy it this time around, but...Not this!
"It's OK," Katara assured, rubbing her shoulder. "I'll stop picking on you about it, but only if you promise you'll tell me about it some time."
"Sure," she spat out impulsively. "I just...don't wanna talk about it right now, OK?" There was a harsh bite to her words. Katara's hand squeezed her shoulder, making her realize how tense she had become. She let herself relax again.
"OK," Katara agreed. Toph could feel a pang of guilt seep through the girl's fingertips into her arm before her hair resumed its state of being woven. "I didn't mean to get you upset," she clarified. "I was just picking on you. If I'm going to be your big sister, you're going to have to get used to that." There was that same little taste of mischief, just like Aang had been giving her. Toph considered objecting to that, as this was the first time she could recall where Katara had actually compared them to sisters in such a direct way. But rather than object, she accepted the idea with a shrug. She scooted in toward the rock Katara was perched upon, bending her knees up to stick her feet into the grass.
"Fine," Toph groaned mockingly. "Whatever, I guess I'll deal with you, too." She grinned widely as Katara paused her braiding and was pushing Toph's bangs out of her face.
"I'm glad I'm worth tolerating, then."
Toph fussed a bit and shoved her bangs back to where they had been. "I like 'em like this," she insisted. She didn't care if they got in her face. She just liked them there, and didn't care what people thought of how it made her look. They were kind of like her antennae, in a way, helping her sense things like wind and the like.
"Oh, all right," Katara acknowledged, backing off. "You know, they cover up your eyes." Duh. That was part of the point, Sugar Queen.
"Aaaaand why does that matter?" Toph wondered, her mood tainted with irritation at this point. Her body involuntarily loosened when those nimble hands went back to work, tugging at the nerves on her head once again.
"If you're trying to impress a boy," Katara explained, "you should let him see your eyes, even if you can't see his." Ugh. Again with the boys. I am not in the mood for this. "You have very pretty eyes, Toph," Katara specified. Pretty eyes? Toph tried hard to contemplate what that even meant.
"Yea, that doesn't help me much, here," she grumbled. "I don't even know what 'pretty' is."
"Sure you do," Katara insisted. "Think about something that feels nice. Like a nice smell, or a tasty food...'Pretty' is just a word we use for that same kind of thing, it's just that you see it."
"Which means I'll never really know what you're talking about," Toph dismissed. She didn't care one bit when Katara sighed in defeat. OK, maybe she felt a little bad, but she was in a cranky mood. Couldn't Katara just let it alone?
"I guess you're right," Katara admitted. "But you're very cute, Toph. Your eyes are very different from most people's. I know it's hard to understand, but trust me: you have pretty eyes, and it couldn't hurt to show them off if you're trying to impress a boy." Rrrr. Where was she pulling this crap from?
"Who said I'm trying to impress a boy?" she demanded in quite an ornery fashion, crossing her arms.
"OK, all right!" Katara accepted with a giggle before making a valid point. "I just can't think of why else you'd start worrying about your hair so much or why you'd get all flustered by me and Aang or Sokka and Suki." Toph couldn't reply - unless grinding her teeth a bit counted. She tapped her foot into the dirt with great impatience. "And don't act like you haven't, I've noticed it." Yes, yes, yes. Fine! She felt uncomfortable with all of these love birds tweeting all around. Big whoop.
"It's awkward," she spat out in indignation. "I feel out of place."
"I know," Katara assured. "And I'm sorry." She said it with sympathy but they both knew there was nothing that could be done about it.
"It's OK," Toph said plainly with a shrug as nonchalant as she could muster. Those guys wanted to do all their mushy stuff? Great. Then they should back off and not bother her about that junk. She was slowly wiggling her fingers around, sliding her meteor bracelet around her arm methodically like a thick liquid.
Fwoooohhhhhh-tip. Fwok.Ah, it was Aang, landing on his glider. Being jolted from her habit, she melded her stone back into a bracelet hurriedly.
"Hey," Aang greeted. "Got that mess cleaned up yet?"
"Ha. Ha," Toph faked. She rubbed her foot across the dirt and willed the earth to slide around, slipping Aang onto his bottom. Heh. That'd teach him. Aang chuckled as he rose to his feet, phwif, phwif, dusting off his pants.
"Wow," he murmured as he got closer. Fwump. He plopped himself down in front of Toph. "You look so different like that, Toph. It looks nice." Oh, great, yea. Let's all tell the blind girl how nice she looks. Real helpful.
But this was in fact what she did really want, deep down.
"Thanks, Twinkletoes. We should get Sugar Queen here to work on you, next."
"Huh?" Ha. Stumped the poor kid. "What...?"
"I don't need to see to feel how ugly you are today," she teased with a snicker. He slapped her on the shoulder as a counter, and Katara huffed.
"All right, guys, I need Toph to stay still here, OK?" Her annoyance was drenched in syrupy sweetness when she spoke. Like dipping an angry hornet in honey.
Toph and Aang shared a quiet, awkward moment with the shared atmosphere of 'oops, we just got yelled at.' After the dust settled, Katara made a request.
"Aang, look at Toph's eyes and tell her what you think."
Again with the confused silence.
"She's trying to convince me that they're pretty," Toph explained dully.
"Huh," Aang muttered. What the hell did that mean? She could feel his breath on her face, her bangs ever so slightly shifted as he sighed in deep thought, surely only a couple inches away. Skretch-skretch, he scratched his cheek. "OK," he proclaimed. "I got it." He 'got' it? What was there to-whoa, wait-he had grabbed her right hand and pressed her palm into the meteor rock on her left wrist. Between Katara's weaving, Aang's proximity to her and his hand on hers, and then on top of that thinking about Sokka, she was feeling extremely cramped and uncomfortable by all of this.
"All right," Aang began, keeping her hand pressed into the stone. "Make this stone into a ball." He let her go. She tugged her hand up, her fingertips locked into the energies of the rock. She easily peeled the stone from her wrist and balled it into her fist. She carried out this precise act, forming it into an exactly shaped sphere, with minimal effort. Yea, she was good. "OK, great!" Aang made her tighten her fingers around it. "This rock...Think of how this rock feels: smooth and clean and round, and different than most other rocks, right?" She nodded quickly, eager to find out where this was going. "How this stone feels in your hand, right now," Aang insisted. "That is how it feels when someone looks at your eyes."
"Really?" she murmured in awe, running her fingers around the stone. If what Aang said was really true, maybe her useless eyes were good for something after all.
"Absolutely. I'm sure of it," he insisted with that lisp of his.
"Wow, Aang," Katara mused, "That actually makes sense." Hell yea it made sense, and it was awesome.
"Thanks," Toph mumbled, a bit surprised and embarrassed by the whole thing. Did Sokka feel that way about her eyes? He wouldn't tell her, even if he did. Maybe he'd like her new hair - he suggested it, after all. After she'd adjusted to it, she had decided that she loved Aang's hands dancing around hers, but she had wished that they had been was Sokka's rough, worn hands instead.
"So why do you care so much about being pretty?" Aang wondered. He was certainly perplexed. Katara seemed sneaky but Aang was just weirded out. What was wrong with maybe trying to act a little girly from time to time, huh?
"Pff, I dont," she denied as quickly as possible. She huffed irritably, the tingling of her bangs blowing around serving as a slight distraction. Geez, what the hell? Couldn't a girl just try something different?
"Uhhhhh huh." Aang didn't sound convinced. "Ya know, Toph, there's nothing wrong with going after a boy you like." There was that devious taunting in his tone.
"Even if I did like someone," Toph proposed crossly, "it's not like there's much I could do about it."
"Why not?" Aang wondered, genuinely baffled. Katara ran her hands along Toph's head, her work complete.
"B-because," Toph answered simply. Crap. That didn't make much sense. Need to follow up. "...What if you knew it'd never work out?"
"Didn't we just talk about standing your ground?" Aang pointed out, poking her in the forehead with his finger. Ow-Hey-Quit it. "You never know until you go for it. I mean..." There was an awkward pause. Skiff. He kicked his foot through the grass, and she could feel his heart-rate elevate. "That's what I did." Thip. Thip. Smirtch. Blaaaaaah! Again with the kissing. Toph flopped onto her stomach in the grass, resting her cheek in a palm. Her elbow dug itself slightly into the earth for comfort. Fwumph. And now Aang was laying beside her.
"So who is it?" Aang probed in a whisper.
"That's exactly what I wanted to know," Katara pointed out as she rested herself back onto the rock she had been braiding from.
Toph groaned in frustration, but felt somehow relieved that they didn't seem to realize the answer to their own question. But the way Katara spoke...she might. And that kind of worried her.
"It's not The Duke, is it?" Aang guessed.
"What the hell?" Toph growled, rolling onto her back and tossing her hands up in the air. "I don't even remember this kid! Did we have a thing I was never aware of?"
She could sense something strange in the air. Those two were probably exchanging some visual message she couldn't decipher. She hated it when they did that.
"I-I dunno," Aang muttered. "I just...I was just shooting in the dark, I guess."
"No kidding," Toph grumbled, turning onto her side, facing away from the two of them.
"You need to be more optimistic," Aang suggested. Yoink. Ow. That was her ear. Why was he tugging on it? "Whoever he is, what have you got to lose, right?"
Um, gee, how about everything we've built together?
"Well, Aang, m-maybe you should look at it this way," Katara advised. "Remember how you felt when...I wasn't ready?"
"Yea," Aang replied, immediately bummed. "That...didn't exactly feel so great..."
"Maybe she's just afraid of that happening, too. I mean...It did make things awkward for a little while, you know?"
"Hm," he hummed in response. It was practically an admission that she was right. "But I didn't give up," Aang pointed out. "And besides, that was different. With all of the stuff we've been through, I mean...Yea, I was worried that it could make things weird. But Toph doesn't have to worry about that, right?" He slapped her on the shoulder and she sighed to herself. She didn't know when her face had started blushing but she'd be damned if she let them see it. He chuckled at her lack of response. "It's OK, I get it," he said.
Uh, no? You really don't. Stop trying. Seriously.
"You're just shy. If you need me to talk with whoever this guy is, I will. I'm your brother now, after all. I should be doing favors like that for you...or something. Right?"
Part of her was kind of grateful for the offer. That was sweet. As much as she often put him down for being so sensitive and...not tough...Toph had to admit that Aang seemed to try hard to help people out and that deserved respect.
"Thanks," she replied quietly, trying not to sound as hostile. "I don't even know if I like him or not, though, so...Don't worry about it, OK?"
"All right," Aang casually agreed.
"Just don't forget that we're here for you, Toph," Katara added.
Well, at least Aang was clueless, but...Toph was starting to feel like Katara knew and was just pretending like she didn't...Either way, she was quite pissed off with this whole situation. What could she even do? And now a damned splinter had been wedged into her mind from this conversation: Aang's words, But I didn't give up.