"My tough little Rockie," he gruffly proclaimed.
"I try," she casually agreed.
"I'm no good for you. You know that, right?"
"Why? 'Cuz you're a wuss?"
"I'm hard as nails. You know that."
"Yea..." she swooned.
"I'll just break your heart, Kiddo."
"No you won't! You would never do that."
"How do you know?"
"'Cuz. I just know."
"Why would you risk it?"
"'Cuz. I like you."
"Well...I like you, too."
"But do you like me like me?"
"I'm not sure."
"Maybe if I show you, you'll know?"
His body was close. She eagerly grasped her hands around him and pressed her face into his chest-
"Toph," he called.
"What?" she gasped, confused.
"Hey. C'mon, Kiddo. Time to get up."
"Up and at 'em. Keh-mon."
Her mouth emitted a slow and miserable "Uuuggghhh...?"
She suddenly realized that his body was soft and poofy and oddly not-human-shaped. She could smell the familiar scent of her saliva drizzled around it.
"Got yerself a new snuggle buddy there, eh, Rockie?" Sokka slyly teased.
Damnit all to hell. She was groping a pillow. Her half-awake arms slowly pushed it away. She covered up her face, rubbing gunk from her eyes. Her face was as hot as boiling water.
"Shudduuuup," she whimpered dearily.
"We're ready to leave here soon, just waitin' on you, Sleepypants."
"OK, OK," she groaned, rolling onto her stomach and pushing herself onto her knees, where she remained for a few moments, her head drooping. Thwap. "Ow." What the hell had just hit her in the butt? Felt thin and whip-like.
"C'mon! Get that stony butt in gear!" Sokka prodded - literally, jabbing the bendable stick into her rib. Maybe if she didn't move...he'd hit her again? Thip thip thip. Aw. He was leaving. "Don't make me use this fishing pole again," he threatened in jest on his way out to the main room. She sure wouldn't mind if he caught her in a net.
Ugh. Bleck, bleh, puh! What the hell was that? Where did that come from? Gross!
Shaking the grody thought from her mind, Toph stood in the empty bedroom, a nest of wool blankets at her feet on the wooden floor. She stood on her toes and reached for the ceiling, stretching her limbs out and yawning a mighty yawn.
"Here, I'll take that, you finish cooking these eggs." Katara's slightly distance voice reached to her barely awake ears.
"Sure," Sokka complied.
Thip thip thip came Katara's footsteps as she entered the room. Toph scratched at her rump, fortunately unharmed from Sokka's attack.
"Good morning," Katara cheerfully greeted, scooping up the blankets and- fooff -beginning to fold them on the nearby bed she and Aang had slept on that night. Toph stood about like a log, groggy and dizzy. "Someone's been drooling all over her pillow," Katara noticed with a laugh as she picked up the feather-filled cushion and placed it on top of the now neatly folded blankets.
Fully aware of this happening around her, Toph finally decided to start making an effort at being a person who acted awake.
"Wh...What time is it?" she wondered.
"It's about ten," Katara replied. "We're pretty much ready to go, we're just getting ready to eat before we head out." Mm. Eat. Eggs. Those were eggs her nose was beginning to pick up on. Scrambled. Fsszzzzz they went as they were prepared in the kitchen area in the next room. Gruurrgg went Toph's stomach at the thought.
Pulling herself from her egg-hungry stupor, Toph noticed that Katara seemed to be fidgeting around the room, grabbing clothes, it seemed.
"Sokka," she called as she carried her findings off. "You do realize that we don't have cold weather clothes for Toph and Suki, right?"
"Yea, they've never been to the icy north," Aang added with drama.
"We're going south, Dear," Katara corrected.
"...The icy south!"
"I know," said Sokka from his stance at the pan. As Toph came into the room and immersed herself in the brilliant scents of freshly cooked eggs, Sokka explained, "We're just gonna have to make due with what we've got until we get there. Suki can borrow my coat - I'm used to the cold."
"Would Toph fit into mine?" Aang wondered as he scooted himself into a seat at the table.
"I dunno," Katara doubtfully replied. She didn't seem to think so. "They might be a little too big."
"Better too big than too small, right?" Aang pointed out before the clink of his fork on his plate began.
"Thanks, Twinkletoes, but I'll manage," Toph assured, sitting herself beside him at an egg-less chair. She reach out and rubbed at his head a little with a wide grin, enjoying that fuzzy feeling. "Wouldn't want your scrawny self to freeze, Baldy."
"We'll make sure to bring extra clothes to keep you girls warm," said Katara as she joined them.
"I told you, Hawky, they're chicken eggs, OK? There's no babies in 'em. Get off my back!"
"No, guys! No eggs for...flying...things!" Sokka seemed to be struggling against a hawk and a lemur-bat to fend them off as they pestered him. "Toph's already got dibs on these eggs. Back off." Toph found herself admiring his grunts and battle cries and he kept the vicious beasts at bay on her behalf.
"Well, are they done yet?" Toph wondered, grabbing her plate and dashing over to receive her treasure he was defending.
"Probably," Sokka muttered as the animals calmed down. She could hear him flipping them around. "Yep, looks good. Gimme." She stuck her arm out and he pulled her plate away. "I gotta spice it up for ya," Sokka warned, patting her on the shoulder as an indication that she should return to the table.
"So where's Makeup Ninja?" Toph asked no one in particular, appreciating Suki's lack of existence in that moment.
"She went to go get some extra food," said Katara. "She'll be back soon."
Toph impatiently awaited her food, having to be tortured by Aang's loud and enthusiastic chewing - cute as it was, it'd be much more tolerable had she food to eat herself. Katara broke her from her mouth watering thoughts, complimenting her out of the blue.
"Your hair looks very nice, Toph. That braid looks good on you."
"Thanks." What the-? What did this have to do with anything?
"Don't you guys think so?" Katara probed, tasking the boys with responding.
"Mrrmhmm," Aang hummed out through a mouthful. He meant it, she could tell. It was slightly flattering to know she was two for three.
Toph delighted at the aromas of her eggs as Sokka scoff-ed her plate onto the table before her. She immediately dug in, savoring the moist texture. They were just the way she liked them - small pieces of tomato cooked in, lemon pepper and a touch of salt. Sokka knew how to feed her well.
"Yea, it looks good," Sokka agreed plainly. He messed up her bangs before returning to the fire to continue cooking. "I take all the credit - it was my idea," he bragged jokingly. Toph eagerly chewed into the eggs, considering how much he really cared.
"I bet her new boyfriend likes it," Aang teased. Urk. Toph found herself choking on that delicious paste of eggs, which she had swallowed sooner than expected.
"Boyfriend?" Katara burst out in a clearly shocked manner.
"Boyfriend?" Sokka repeated, more curious than surprised.
"Yea, the guy she keeps going to see at the Jasmine Dragon," Aang excitedly announced. What the hell, Twinkletoes? I never said that...Note to self: next time, remind your brother to keep a secret when you don't want him blabbing what you talk about to everyone.
Toph slapped herself in the forehead and sighed irritably.
"Twinkletoes!" she growled. "I never...I...I don't have a boyfriend!" No, no, stop it, stupid cheeks. Calm down. No need to get worked up and warm, huh?
"Sure ya don't," Aang picked. "Only 'cuz ya haven't asked him yet." Come on, face, stop getting all hot. This sucks.
"Wh-? Hold on," Katara quickly interjected. "So there is a boy?" she suspiciously checked.
"Th-that's...It's-I-I might like a boy," Toph stuttered, entirely embarrassed by this. Thank the Spirits Sokka was occupied.
"What's this hypothetical boy's name?" inquired Sokka - damnit. Just the person she did not want to be involved in this conversation right now.
"Hypothetical?" Toph grumbled defensively.
"You don't exactly seem like the dating type," Sokka explained with nonchalance. That one felt like a pinprick right into her chest.
"I could totally be the dating...type," Toph insisted, flustered by his words.
"Well, what's this guy's name?" he demanded in a disbelieving tone. Ugh, you stupid freaking...
"I don't have a boyfriend," Toph admitted angrily, chewing into her food in a rush and forcing a growl through her delicious eggs. "Ihfs munuv yer bivniff emmyway..."
"That's why you gotta ask this guy if-" Aang's suggestion was interrupted by Katara.
"All right, boys," she scolded. "Let's not embarrass her. If she wants to tell us, she will when she's ready." Toph absorbed Katara's firm hand rubbing on her back.
"Thanks, Sugar Queen," she quietly said after swallowing her hefty dose of food, cheeks beginning to calm down at last.
Sokka shuffled things around into his pack, and Toph heard the gantle sloshing of liquid in a bottle. He seemed to be on the floor by his bed. It was nearly time to leave and Sokka had silently slipped back into his bedroom, unnoticed by the others who had headed outside.
"So what's that stuff?" Toph inquired as Sokka gently slipped the bottle into his bag.
"Yeep!" he squeaked, tightening his sack shut.
"Oh-oh, hey," he nervously greeted. "Toph. Yea. Hi." The silence was suspicious, for sure.
"Hi," Toph retorted in an amused laugh.
"What?" Sokka defensively spat.
"Nothing, just...wondering why you're back here. On the floor. Sneaking something into your bag."
"OK, OK, don't tell anyone," Sokka solemnly whispered, crawling up to her. She relished the intimate proximity as he slapped his hand around her shoulder. "I got some special juice from a merchant in town yesterday."
"It's...special juice," Sokka repeated carefully. "Like, juice that you'd find...in the desert. In a cactus."
"Ohhhh," Toph whispered back in realization. She remembered the bizarre state of mind Sokka had been after consuming cactus juice from their journey in the desert. What she didn't understand was why he had found some. "OK...But, um...Why would you want to drink that stuff? It makes you go crazy."
"I'm...pretty stressed out about some stuff," he grumbled. "If I need to, this stuff can...help me forget everything for a while. Ya know?"
Forget everything. Ha. That sounds like a plan.It's not a plan, it's running away from your problems. Hopefully he won't drink it.Meh. Whatever. I could sure go for something like that right now.
"Will you share it with me?"
"Wh-? Share it?"
"Um, yea. Unless you want everyone else to know about it."
"W-well, it's just...You're too young to-" Ohhhhh, no. I don't think so.
Her face twisted into a threatening glare.
"...Right, then," Sokka meekly let out. "Sure. We can share. Just don't tell anyone about it."
"You got it, Meathead."
"I didn't know it was a secret," muttered Aang shamefully, his lisp a paintstroke on a canvas of wind.
"It's OK," Toph tiredly forgave him, sighing deeply, her head buried in her arms. "I guess...I dunno, I should've said something. I just thought you'd have some common sense, Twinkletoes..."
"W-well, I promise I won't tell anyone about stuff next time if you let me know," he hastily assured her.
"All right. Don't worry so much about it, ya dork," Toph advised warmly, still resting her head.
"So, you guys excited to get to know our dad better?" Sokka wondered.
"I'm really looking forward to getting to," Suki answered thoughtfully. "It'll be so different to spend time with him when there's no war going on, won't it?"
"Got that right," Sokka agreed eagerly. "And you'll get to see where we grew up."
"The south pole better be as awesome as everyone keeps saying it is," Toph warned in jest.
"If it's anything like what I've heard of the north pole, it'll be amazing," Suki murmured in awe.
"Weeeell," Aang winced, scooting away from Toph to Suki's side at the front of their mighty bison mount. "It's not exactly the same..."
"Oh. How so?"
"It's kinda puny," Aang sheepishly explained in a whisper.
"Hey! Are you calling our home puny?" Sokka roared indignantly.
"I know, right? Aang's been spoiled by the fancypants Northern Tribe."
"Sokka," Katara dully stopped him. "I love our home as much as you do, but...Aang's right. It's kinda puny."
"Urg-but-!" He was so cute when he was frustrated.
"That just means it has a more...small-town, homey feeling!" Katara quickly clarified with nervous optimism. Yea, he'd buy that. Maybe. As they argued the point, Suki struck up conversation with Aang.
"I heard you defended the whole Northern Tribe from a fleet of Fire Nation ships."
"Haha, yea I did," his voice beamed. "There were, like, a hundred ships all coming to attack the city, and I...-" Toph tuned his story out, having already heard it once or twice, and focused on Katara and Sokka, who must have resolved their differences.
"I still can't believe our people are finally safe again," came Katara's wistful voice. "It's going to be so strange seeing everyone again after so long. I mean, so much has changed. I feel like...a completely different person."
"That's because you are," Sokka solemnly informed. The two were sitting beside one another, as she could feel their backs pressing againt Appa's saddle edge across the way. Tapping her feet methodically, she could sense their bodies meld into each other's sides. "You've grown up a lot, Katara. We all have."
"Some of us had more room to grow into than others," she teased. Sokka chuckled in spite of himself. Pat pat, he slapped her opposing shoulder - his arm was resting around her back.
"I'm really proud of you, Sis," he told her, lowering his tone against Aang's excitable storytelling. "You know that?"
"I do," she whispered back, her voice trembling ever so slightly. She could hear Katara make a comforted hum sound, picking up vibrations that implied the two were hugging eachother from the side. "I'm really proud of you, Brother," she reciprocated, her voice cracking a bit. Was she crying? "You know that?"
"I do," Sokka's choked up voice managed. "I know Dad is proud of both of us..."
"We can finally be a family again." Katara sniffed. She was crying. "All of us can..." Not that it was making Toph want to cry. Well, maybe. Just a little. She was so uncertain of what was waiting for her - not the south pole so much as her life with these people. She wanted in on this moment they were having. She wanted to soak in that pressure, the hands over her head and arms. She crawled over to them.
"Aw, Toph," Katara squeaked. Crap, she was getting all wet-eyed, too. "Come here..." Toph squirmed her way between them and packaged herself in their arms.
"There ya go, Kiddo," Sokka muttered, pressing his thick-skinned hand into her shoulder as Katara's soft fingers latched onto her neck.
"-the way everyone talks about it, it was super scary, 'cuz I was, like, a giant monster made of water and...-" Aang trailed off, no-doubt noticing the state of the others.
"You guys OK?" Suki murmured.
"Group hug time!" Sokka tearfully squeaked in that jokingly dramatic way of his. Toph could feel their bodies approach.
If anyone else touches me, it better be Aang. Thankfully, it was. He seemed to lean against her back, stretching his arms out to reach Sokka and Katara. Smirtch. Suki kissed Sokka. Freaking-! What the hell? Had to ruin the moment, stupid bit- Smmmmrrrrkch. Oh! Hey...Who was that on her forehead? Those lips had to be Katara's. Too sweet and sugary for Sokka. Her stomach went fluttery and her eyes continued to leak. She squished her face into Sokka's chest, rubbing her nose into it just once. OK, maybe twice. She wished that moment could last forever. No words, being touched by her three favorite people in the world from all angles, no hiding, no running, no pretending. It was, in a way, alien to think this way. To her, family was never who you were like this with. Family was who you had to escape, who you had to hide things from so you wouldn't get in trouble. Everyone kept telling her this was her family now. If this really was, she didn't ever want to be without it.
Isn't this worth it?Yea, it totally is.
Wet. On her face. And again, more wet. What-?
Ack! More licking! Stop it! Trying to sleep here.
Rrrr! Why was it so cold? Her body tensed up into a fetal position and she grasped at her thick wool blanket to trap more heat.
"Aw, Toph, Sweetie," Katara sang with melancholy. "Here." Shff-ff-ff-sph. Shuffling through a bag of supplies. Another layer of weight settled itself across her, and she could feel it being tucked underneath her scrunched up body. "That any better?"
"Mmhm," she hummed with a yawn. Licked on the face in chilly weather was not how she would've liked to wake up, but the good news was that they must have been close to their destination.
"Well, we should be there before nightfall," Katara assured, "So just stay covered until then and I promise we'll get a nice warm coat for you. Suki, how are-?" There was a pause. "Oh! Um..." Oh, boy. That was a mad Katara. She cleared her throat, deliberately loudly. Toph's feet and hands were wrapped in cloth, her head planted in a pillow. Between that and her groggy state of mind she was having trouble telling what was going on, exactly. Whatever it was, it must have been on the ground, while she was resting on Appa. Katara coughed out an "Ahem!" once again, even louder.
"Ohp! Yep! Eh-w-we're just fine!" Sokka nervously called from below, the sound of a sleeping bag shpoof-ing around quickly. Ew! Had they been being gross again?
"Can't believe those two," Katara grumbled to herself under her breath and she started folding . "So rude...should keep that private...inconsiderate..." Toph couldn't help but wonder why Katara was so bothered by them being all kissy. It didn't seem to annoy her very much in the past, so what was the deal all of a sudden? Well, whatever. Man, why did it have to be so freaking cold? Brrr. She scrunched her body up in an attempt to stay warm.
Wah! Wh-what the? No! No, not lift off time yet! What the hell? Wait, how did everyone get on Appa so fast? Damnit, had she nodded off? Well, she sure was awake now.
"Why are we leaving already?" she demanded, scratching dust from her eyes. "What about breakfast?" Frick, she had really wanted to appreciate some ground before another day of flying.
"We need to get to our tribe soon, we're running low on supplies," Sokka explained, shoving what felt like a bunch of bananas at her. "We don't want to be exposed to this weather for too long." He sniffed. Poor guy - that's right, he gave his coat to Suki. Was probably getting a little cold.
"Aren't you freezing?" Toph wondered, clutching her blankets around her tightly now that she was sitting upright.
"Nah, I'll be fine," Sokka dismissed. Another sniff came from his no-doubt leaking nose.All right, tough guy, you keep telling yourself that.
"If you say so," Toph shrugged him off, prying open a banana and chucking the peel off-bison behind her. She scarfed it down in a flash and burped as Suki spoke up.
"Oh, Sokka," Suki's concerned voice whimpered. "Your hands are freezing! Why don't you take your gloves back?"
"No, no," he insisted. Sciff sciff, rubbing her hands across his arms.
"Well," Suki spat, pausing as she considered their options. "Why don't you take back your coat and gloves and...I'll share the blankets with Toph." Excuse me? Who said I wanted to share anything with you? I'd rather freeze, thank you.
"I don't want you to be uncomfortable," said Sokka sternly. Seriously? Ohhh, OK, so now I'm an inconvenience to be around? Not 'comfortable' to share a blanket with, am I?
"I don't want you getting sick!" Suki pleaded. "Katara," she expectantly begged for assistance.
"Suki's right," Katara agreed in that motherly tone. "You need to keep warm or you'll get ill. You want to be able to enjoy our time with dad, don't you?"
"Yea, being stuck in bed would stink," Aang agreed. Toph certainly didn't like the idea of him sitting around, not being able to show her all of the cool Water Tribe...stuff...he probably wanted to show them.
"All right! OK!" he gave in with some stubbornness. "All right, Rockie, make some space in there."Eeep. H-he's just gonna come right in and-? Fwuffloophum. Yep. Spirits, he was freaking cold!
She twitched away from his chilled arms.
"Geez, Snoozles, you're like an iceberg!"
"Sorry," he grumbled. The entire blanket bunch was jittering around due to his trembling body. Aw...poor guy. It was his own fault for thinking he was all tough and resilient. She certainly knew better. The blanket tugged a bit, forcing Toph to be pressed against his icy side. Suki was squeezing him in an effort to help warm him up.
"Graappp.""You OK in there, Buddy?" Aang checked as Momo's voice erupted from his neck. "Haha, hey, no squirming-ha! Th-that tickles!"
"Toph, could you help warm him up?" Suki asked. Damnit. She didn't want to share this blanket with him. It was awkward. But she hated feeling his discomfort through every vibration in the wool.
"Are you guys comfortable?" Katara hurriedly checked. "I mean, if you're not, we could probably work something else out, so..." She trailed off.
Sokka informed her, "It's smarter this way," in that direly intelligent manner he occasionally pulled out. "Our combined body heat should help us both stay warmer than we we would be separate." Well, if he insisted, like...she'd be OK with it, she supposed. She'd tolerate it for a while. But only for as long as she absolutely had to! Yea.
"OK," Katara conceded to his logic, her tone conveying just a hint of doubt.
"C'mere," Sokka grunted, his slightly less frigid hands tugging at her. She scooted his way and he helped hoist her into his lap - whoa, heya there. Unexpected. Suki pulled on the blankets to keep them covered.
"There you guys are," she chirped. "Stay all toasty in there."
Sokka, his arms around her waist, gave her a pat on the knee with his icicle hand and spoke in his 'I'm fancypants intelligent' voice, but slow and deliberate with each syllable. "Quaw-lih-tee time with Unk-kole Sawk-kah." Her face was bubbling warm but she tried to play it cool. His stupid humor didn't help, it only made her giggle. She wished she could take that giggle back and hide it away.
"I already have an Uncle, and no offense, but he's kinda cooler than you," she explained as flatly as she could.
"Mmmmyehss, but does he know your weakness?" Huh?
"My weakn-?" Wh-whoa! Hey, no!
Her body began thrashing about, struggling to remove his icy fingers from her arm pits as he deviously laughed at her plight. An eruption of giggles involuntarily spewed forth, until he let up, leaving her gasping and breathing in a half-laugh.
"You're a jerk!" she squealed, reaching her arm up behind her and smacking the side of his head.
"You really are," Suki snickered, fwap, hitting the other side. "Don't be mean to Toph, or you'll get what's coming to you."
"And what's that?" Sokka dared, his tone lowering.
"You don't want to know," Suki coyly teased. They were both oddly silent for a moment and, leaning against Sokka as she was, could feel his heart ramp up momentarily. Ouch. That was her own heart being stabbed with a nail.
"So, Toph!" Katara spat out of nowhere in an attempt to drown them. "Have you thought about what you want to do while we're at the south pole?"
"Y-yea, sure," she stammered, trying desperately to ignore whatever was going on above her. "Umm...W-well, Sokka was gonna take me fishing, uh...I want to, erm..." Huh. Hadn't really thought this one through. What was there to do at the south pole?
"Ya know, I was thinking," Katara proposed sweetly, "Maybe I can show you some of the traditions our tribe has. I mean, if you're going to be a part of our family, then...-"
"That sounds awesome," Toph mustered enthusiasm. Actually, it kind of did sound fun. She had spent so much time in the earth and fire kingdoms, but she had no idea what life for water benders was like.
"We should go hunting!" burst out Suki. Toph was jarred by the feeling of Suki's hands slapping the shoulder of the boy she was leaning against. Toph grabbed Sokka's hands and folded them back around her waist, willing herself to shiver just a little more than her body was by itself to evoke the idea that she needed more warmth. Sokka scratched at her tummy, which was shockingly empty despite having just eaten. Ooooughh. That felt very weird, whatever was going on with her stomach. It was nervousness and fear floating around, mixed together. She lazily leaned her head back into his pectoral and appreciated Sokka's scent, once again focusing on whatever he was telling that stupid Suki.
"-teach you proper tracking techniques. Hunting is not the same up here like it is where you're from."
"Sounds fun, Sweetie. I can't wait." Sweetie was totally not a cool nickname. Snoozles was much better for him. It suited him.
"I'm gonna race penguin-seals," Aang proudly declared. "And win. A lot."
"What makes you so sure I won't win?" Katara prodded playfully. "I've gotten pretty good at waterbending."
"Pff, I'm not gonna cheat," Aang protested. "No bending. I'm just gonna be faster."
"Ohhhh really?" came Katara's disbelieving sarcasm. "When do you ever not use your bending?"
As both pairs continued their discussions, Toph considered what penguin-seals could possibly be like. Toph had no idea, but had a funny feeling that trying to race them would be an exercise in futility for her. She rubbed Sokka's arm and he dismissively patted her back, still engaged with Suki. Toph found herself seriously wondering if perhaps this, too - all of this - was an exercise in futility.