"And there is it," Sokka proclaimed dully, his voice plagued by exhaustion.
The group whimpered out some cheers that were more like sighs of relief. It had been a long, slow, cold day. So slow that at sunset they had dropped altitude to cloud gaze because they were too brain-dead to think of anything more involving to occupy their time with. Cloud-gazing. Yep. Toph had just a ton of fun doing that.
"H-how m-much longer?" Toph cringed through chattering teeth, her body numbed from the frigid air. Sokka had left her alone in the pool of wool to survey the area ahead and ensure they were on their way. Suki remained by her side, rubbing her shoulders through the blankets with padded, mitted hands. It was annoying and Toph didn't understand why Suki was bothering to do so. It didn't feel pleasant at all. Not even a little bit. Maybe just a little. Toph dismissed the pin prick of guilt in her mind, insisting on being completely apathetic toward Suki for the time being.
"Just a few minutes longer, I promise," said Katara with fortitude.
For one reason or another, it had never truly dawned on Toph that the south pole was going to be quite this cold. She had been so focused on the idea of there being no earth, and the notion that a place colder than she'd ever experienced even existed was difficult to consider in the first place.
"Yea, we'll be there real soon, Toph," Sokka agreed. She could hear his teeth rattle together a little bit but was impressed at how well he was holding up.
Toph's body tensed up as her blankets were whipped around, threatening to run away as the wind tore at them. Suki helped pin them down, to Toph's dismay and gratitude. What off earth was that? Some screaming banshee, it felt like, soaring around their sky bison.
"All right, Aang!" Katara shouted, a tinge of worry in her voice. Oh, Twinkletoes. Toph was so cold that she wasn't picking up on vibrations well and hadn't even realized he'd left. "Could you be careful? We don't want anyone...falling off..." she trailed off, recognizing that Aang was likely too far off to hear her.
"I-I'm OK," Toph grumbled, blowing her bangs about so they weren't poking into her eyes. "J-j-just a...f-few more m-minutes, right?" Each word had to be forced out through trembling lips and gnashing teeth. It made her want to not even bother trying to talk.
"Right," Suki assured, straightening the blankets back over Toph's body.
I was asking Katara.
Aang came back after a couple minutes to land their steed. A blast of chilly air rushed past them, and Toph buried her head in wool in an effort to protect herself. Everything rattled and quaked and some kind of ground formed itself into focus. Sort of. It was hard to tell how much earth there was here, but wherever it was, it was a lot deeper than Toph would've liked. Appa's drawling groan was miserable - poor guy.
"Good job, Buddy," she could hear Aang congratulating his bison. He must have landed ahead of them. "I promise I'll get you some food real soon."
"Speaking of food, we're home!" Sokka declared, ssffff-skak, sliding off Appa and landing on ice. "Blubber jerky, here I come!"
"Do you need some help getting down?" Suki's voice grated into Toph's ear, inches away.
"I-I c-can get d-d-down fine on-on m-my own," she mumbled, her words a defensive dagger poking through the air, saying 'Stay back.'
"OK," Suki barely said, confused. Toph immediately flung herself from her protection and clambered over the edge of Appa's saddle. Her feet were shocked from the particles of ice and water clinging to the sticky fur of the creature.
"Uh," Katara began with an unsure tone. "Toph? I'm not sure that's such a-" The rest of her sentence was lost in the sounds of wet fur brushing against her face when she lost her grip, slipping to the ground in an inst...-Fuck was it cold! What in the hell?
She struggled to get out of the freezing snow, a substance she had very little experience with but despised all the same. She got up from her knees to--Ohhhh shit! Now her feet were in it! Ick-ick-ick-cold-cold-wet-BLEH!
"OK, OK!" Katara cried, as Toph felt a poofy mass of clothing pressing into her front. As her body leaned into it, she recognized the feeling of Katara within the furry coat. Wow, she had gotten there quick. Katara grunted with effort, lifting Toph from the horrible snow to hitch a ride on her back. "You don't wanna get any frostbite," she cautioned.
"Wh-wh-what's fr-frost-b-bite?" Toph chattered, suddenly somewhat afraid. She tightly gripped the leather Katara was encased in, wishing she had her own. Would her feet get eaten off if she walked here barefoot?
"If your feet get too cold they could freeze very bad," Katara hurriedly explained. Oh. No biting of toes? That was a relief, at least. "We have to get her inside, she's going to freeze out here."
Toph's dampened clothes dried up, the water being purged from them.
"Thanks, Aang," Katara said. Oh, waterbending.
"Yup," Aang said simply from behind. "The village is right over there."
"Yea," Sokka supported. He rubbed Toph's back fiercely, and she wished she wasn't feeling so numb so she could appreciate it more. "We're already here, we just need to get you inside. All right? Eh? Hang in there, Champ." Wasn't he freezing, too?
Toph could hear the sounds of greetings from various voices up ahead. At least the wait wouldn't be much longer. Runsh, runsh, runsh, went Katara's footsteps as they proceeded. She immediately missed the thip-ing she had grown so accustomed to.
"Heya!" Sokka's voice bellowed, shrinking as he dashed ahead with Aang and Suki.
"Sokka! You're back!""The Avatar!""Oh, hi!""We heard that you defeated the Fire Lord!""Aheheh, yeeeep, well, I mean, it was...-"That was Twinkletoes, trying to push off the glory for something he was fully entitled to.
"It's been quite some time, Sokka! Your father told us all about how you broke him out of the Boiling Rock!""Yea, that was...It was crazy! Um, actually, we've got someone who needs to get warmed up here, we need to get some clothes for 'em."Aww, he's worried about me.
"You're shaking really bad, Toph," Katara piped up from a few inches away. Her concern warmed Toph's mind. "Why did you do that? We could have helped you get down safely."
"D-don't wh-wh-want...-" she managed. Screw it, talking was too much effort at this point.
"Toph," Katara sighed. "What's your problem with Suki lately?"
Toph's trembling body continued to clench tightly to her friend but she said not a word, a whimpering shiver the only thing escaping her lips.
"Sorry," Katara muttered with guilt. "We'll talk about this later...We need to get you warm first. But you have to be careful out here or you could get sick or hurt. OK?"
"Rrrmmm," Toph dully growled in defiance. She couldn't really feel her fingers anymore but the sounds of the village drew near, and with each padding footstep Katara made she could barely make out the shapes of people and structures. Her senses went numb as she slipped into sleep.
Wwwwhhhhhhrrrrr...Fff. Fffff. Ff.Crick-crak-kakle-pop.Blblblblblooblbloop.
Mm. Warm. Much nicer. That smell was nice, too, though she had no idea what it was. Sounded like soup being cooked just outside the building she was in, the winds whipping at fabric pleasantly - a doorway. Her body was tightly enveloped in leather, wool, fur...It felt fantastic. She sighed out slowly, pleased with her current situation.
"Well, good morning!" Katara greeted. "How are you feeling?"
Toph hummed happily in reply, then yawned. Katara chuckled at her wordless answer. Toph blinked her eyes, that familiar feeling of sand plugging them up. She didn't want to remove her arms from their pockets of heat and was content with where she was.
"Breakfast will be done soon, and after that we'll catch up with Dad."
Toph suddenly recalled where they were and why the world around her outside of this structure didn't seem to exist. She recalled Katara carrying her through the cold the night prior.
We'll talk about this later...Was it later yet?
"Where's everyone else?"
"Oh, Aang is with Sokka and Suki. They're all with Dad catching some fish for food today."
"How come...you're not with your dad?"
"Oh, me?" Katara's shuffling around paused. "I...well, I was worried about you. I didn't want to leave you alone, ya know?"Someone else could've watched over me, though...But you chose to stay here for me.
"No problem, Toph." Katara's motions picked up again. Toph couldn't tell what was going on between the lack of solid earth and the layers she was wrapped within. Her friend's presence vanished in a fwuffle and the soup's sound outside was altered due to the person now standing in front of it. It smelled great, a mix of fish and a little red meat, based on the scent.
The two enjoyed a few minutes of silence as Katara finished food, but a shard of uneasiness remained in the back of Toph's mind.
What's your problem with Suki lately?
The thought was put off again when the soup was ready, pulling Toph from her comfortable position in a cocoon of warmth. As she emerged, she did in fact feel like a moth, garbed in a completely different set of clothing. Perplexed but nevertheless relieved, she ran her hands across it. Leather, fur, thick padded cloth, boots...Meh. The boots. A blessing and a curse. She couldn't sense anything properly with them on, but it felt much more pleasant than having painful popsicles for feet.
"Is it comfortable?" Katara wondered, handing Toph a pewter bowl. Pewter - rock! Earth! Ohhhh, delightful. She ran her fingers over it gleefully for a moment, then remembered to answer her friend's question.
"Uh, yea, it's good," she muttered. "Kinda not cool with the whole...boots...thing..."
"I know," Katara sympathized, "But please promise me you'll keep them on, OK? It can get pretty cold here and I don't want you hurting your feet."
"Promise me, Toph," Katara insisted firmly. Toph wanted to be irritated by this controlling type of behavior but she knew it was out of wisdom and concern, so she conceded.
"All right," she grumbled. "I promise."
"You're going to have to thank the family who gave it to you. They had a girl who'd outgrown your size so they had an extra set of clothes they'd held onto."
"OK," Toph agreed plainly. That was certainly fair. Not like anyone was obligated to give her their clothes. Enough talk of what she was wearing. She was warm, that's what mattered. She was hungry. That mattered even more right now. Warm broth with foreign fish chunks and chewy exotic meat passed into her mouth. Her tastebuds had a party - but not a normal one, this was like a costume party or something. The theme was 'pirates.' Arrgh. Avast ye and ahoy.
"So, what's going on, Toph?" Sssfffpp. Katara sipped at her soup daintily, while Toph was swallowing it down in large portions. Toph had to take a moment to savor this piece of fish, its tender texture giving way to a juicy moment of bliss.
"Not much. Freezing my butt off, falling into the snow-"
"Acting weird around Suki?"
Derp. Um...denial. Let's go with denial.Why?It's easier that way.
"What? What're you talking about, Sugar Queen?"
"Don't even try it with me, Toph. Something's up with you lately. Something besides your family." Sssfffpp.
"Fine," she grunted.Go ahead and tell me what it is, then, Katara, if you're so smart.
"Well? What's going on?" Katara's tone had softened. She had been forceful at first because she was worried, and now that worry was showing through. "You don't have to deal with things by yourself anymore. You know that."
"Yea," Toph said, almost to herself, before eating another bite of soup.
"I've noticed you've been acting weird around Suki lately," Katara repeated her observation. "Like you're mad at her. Did something happen?"Yea, she fucking stole him from me before I even had a chance to do anything about it.
"Not really. I just don't like her."
"You guys got along fine before." Katara said it with a layer of innocent ignorance pasted on top but not thick enough to disable Toph from noticing that she was hiding the truth.
"Ehhh," Toph winced doubtfully. "Maybe 'cuz I knew I had to put up with her."
"Or maybe because you're jealous?" Katara coyly prodded. Sssfffpp.
Toph could feel her innards tighten and coil up in fear and embarrassment, but she tried to continue to eat her soup, her hand trembling a bit. Hopefully Katara didn't notice. She opened her mouth to deny it, but Katara interrupted.
"Don't you lie to me, either, Toph," she warned sternly. She quieted her voice to attempt to soothe her. "I know it might be hard to talk about it. I know we don't always see eye-to-eye. I mean, I guess we never can, because...-"
Toph let out an involuntary chuckle. Damnit, she was choking up. Why? She wasn't even upset or angry or anything! What was the deal?
"Anyway," Katara quickly spat, getting back on track, "Toph, aren't we like sisters at this point? You can talk with me about this. If you need me to keep a secret, I can. You're already going through a lot with what happened with your family, and I don't want to see you get hurt even more."
Toph could feel it in Katara's voice. 'I love you. Lean on me.' The affection in her words was a wave splashing itself against her wall, the liquid seeping in through the cracks. She swallowed and held back the pressure building in her eyes - stupid, useless eyes that only seemed to be good at leaking freaking water these days, and she didn't even know why.
"I don't-It's...I shouldn't," she stammered. She ate more soup to give her body something to do besides melt into a puddle of frustration and shame.
"The boys may be idiots and can't tell what's going on, and Suki might not know you as well as I do," the girl before her specified, "but I've noticed how you've been acting weird lately."
Ugh, what do I do? What do I do?Stand your ground. Bend the rules for your family. Don't run away.
"It's my brother," Katara concluded solemnly. "You have feelings for him, don't you?"
Toph's face was now boiling. So much so that she had to cover it up with her hands to prevent it from burning anything.
"Oh!" Katara whimpered out in surprise at Toph's reaction. She could feel Katara crawl over to her side and stamp palms into her shoulders. "No, no, it's OK!" she assured nervously. "I'm not upset or anything! Don't feel bad!"
"What am I supposed to feel?" Toph growled, tucking her knees up and burying her face in them. She could hear Katara sigh in reply, uncertain as to how to respond. Pff, well that was a good sign...
"You can't help how you feel," Katara slowly explained in a gentle whisper. The pressure on Toph's shoulders tightened for a moment, then loosened. "I don't get why all you girls find my idiot brother so fascinating," she joked. Toph smirked half-heartedly through her shame. "But it's OK to like someone like that, Toph, it's natural."
"Not if they don't care," Toph pouted with a huff.
"What makes you say that?" Katara asked sweetly. The queen was putting extra sugar in her words to pacify Toph's anger.
"He has no idea," Toph decided. "He's always paying attention to that other girl, and they're always being all gross, and, and-"
"I-I know," Katara complied, cutting in to calm her. Toph didn't want to be calmed. "And I'm sorry he's been doing that. But like you said, he has no idea, Toph."
"I don't care! I don't wanna have to put up with those two and all their kissing and touching and whatever they do in their tent at night!"
"Wh-? Wait...What are you talking about...?" Uh-oh. There was angry Katara again. Angry Katara always started off slow and sly and suspicious before she exploded. Now Toph felt bad for bringing this up. She didn't want Sokka getting in trouble.
"Uh, um, they just...I don't know, whatever they do, it...it's annoying."
"What's annoying?" Katara asked calmly. Calm in the creepy way.
"W-well, I can hear things pretty well and I can feel things through the earth, so at night I have to put up with whatever they've doing."
"What are they doing?" Katara quietly seethed.
"Umm...Just...Like...Gross stuff!" Toph spat impatiently. It was so awkward, she didn't want to have to describe these things she didn't even understand.
"I can't believe this," Katara grumbled beneath her breath. "He should know better than...Ugh!" she huffed, fwack! That smack to her own forehead sounded painful. "Ohhhh, he's got some explaining to do," she decided to herself aloud.
"W-well, I don't know for sure what-"
"I know," Katara acknowledged with dainty resolve. "I know. It's...That shouldn't be happening. I mean, I guess...He's old enough to make his own decisions, but...I can't believe he-no, they..." Ha. Yes. Suki wasn't off the hook. "I can't believe they don't even have the patience to keep this stuff to themselves..." If Suki was going to be in trouble, too, well...Hmph. No use defending them, then. Katara had already made up her mind, anyway.
"Whatever," Toph dismissed, finally lifting her head. "I don't even care, I just...I don't like this feeling."
"Right," Katara murmured, her mind snapping back to sympathy. "No, I-yea. I mean, it's..." Still trying to grasp her footing from that bout of irritation, it seemed. "It's hard, Toph. I know. And-and you have other stuff you're working through, so...You just-you shouldn't have to even deal with this right now." I know, right? This was bull crap.
"Maybe if I did what Aang did I wouldn't have to..."
"Huh?" Katara had started to press her fingers into Toph's back. Ow. Ow. Man. Her back really hurt...But the pain Katara was causing was helping somehow. Toph specified what she meant.
"Aang told me that he made sure you knew how he felt before anything could happen..."
"Oh," Katara squeaked. "Y-yea, he did...I didn't really know what to make of it at first, but...-"
"I waited too long," Toph concluded abruptly. "I kept it inside and lied and pretended like it didn't matter and now it does and I hate it."
"Oh, Toph," Katara sighed, continuing to work on squeezing out her back muscles. "I know that must be how it feels, but you don't know if anything would've changed. It might've made things worse..."
"Whatever," came a gruff reply. "Doesn't even matter anymore, anyway." Her back twitched here and there, shots of pain shooting through her as Katara's nimble fingers dug into it, crushing out the tension.
"Hun," Katara insisted, "You can't be so down on yourself. You never know what could happen in the future. You're still young. We are still young! You know? I'm sure there's a lucky guy out there that will be worth waiting for."Ugh, not you, too, Katara! With the waiting? And the waiting for something I don't even want? I don't wanna wait for another fruit to fall off the damned stupid tree, I want this fruit!
"I guess," Toph groaned, doing her best to be perfectly miserable about it.
"I know it seems impossible right now, but trust me: give it time and eventually this will be in the past." What about not giving up? What about destiny, and just knowing it was how things were supposed to be?
"How do you know that?" Toph whined, grunting as Katara struck a very tight muscle in her back.
"Because," Katara replied forcefully, pushing her fingers hard into the knot of tension. Damn, that really hurt but in a therapeutic fashion. "Wow," Katara whispered, digressing. "Your back is in horrible shape..." She breathed slowly, recovering from the effort. "I know that," she continued her original thought, "because that's how I felt when I liked Jet and found out how violent he really was..."
"Jet," Toph murmured, sprawling herself onto her stomach so that Katara could more effectively massage. "Wasn't he that guy who used to be you boyfriend? The one that...er...-"
Katara's hands slowed to a stop.
"He was never my boyfriend," she coldly insisted. Toph could feel Katara's heart-rate through her hands. She wasn't lying, but...there was more to it than that. "I liked him. More than I should have. I wish things hadn't turned out for him the way that they did," she clarified with melancholic resolve, her hands trembling. "But...that's my point, Toph." She went back to work on Toph's stubborn back, pushing her thick braid aside. "We never know what could happen. We can't control how we feel. I guess part of me always liked Aang in a way," she admitted sheepishly. "I never thought anything would happen for a long time, though. He was just...I don't know. Too young?"I'm too young. That's what he thinks, isn't it?
"But...Aang grew up so much in such a short time. I learned about who he was underneath that...dorky bald head." Her sadness had melted away, revealing satisfaction and joy.
"Twinkletoes really is a pretty sweet guy," Toph chimed with optimism. Maybe Aang knew they'd be together, but...Katara didn't. And she was still happy. Maybe someone out there would think that way about her some day - be so determined to be with her - and be right. But she didn't quite like that thought entirely, since it meant Sokka might not be that person.
"He is," Katara beamed. "I'm not sure how things will work out, but I can't imagine life without him in it anymore. I don't want to."
"Is that what love is like?"
Katara giggled, her palms easing Toph's back through the animal skin shirt she wore.
"I guess that's part of it, yea."Hm. I know what that's like. I think that's how I feel about you guys.
Toph felt a gentle slapping on her back, and with that, Katara's hands lifted.
"Thanks," Toph sighed in relief, sitting upright and stretching her arms out. Her back felt much better after that. Maybe all that 'healing' stuff Katara focused on wasn't such a bad idea.
"You're welcome." Warm words. Thip. Thip. Thip. Sssfffpp. "I'm sorry." Cold words.
"Why are you sorry?" Toph wondered, eagerly attacking her own soup again. "You didn't do anything."
"I'm sorry that you're dealing with all of this...And that I can't really do anything to help." She chuckled through her sorrow, then added, "And I'm sorry you have to deal with liking my brother of all people." Toph couldn't help but smile, her face full of fish. "We're...kind of still kids, though, Toph. We still have a lot of time ahead of us, you know?" Sssfffpp.
The idea was foreign. Toph had been concentrating on what she had now, today, and no other time. Every thought of the future was riddled with fear and infected with doubt. Toph finished her soup silently and took a deep breath, impressed with the fact that she hadn't freaking cried again. Suddenly, Katara's hand was in her own.
"A lot of time to find out where we're all headed," Katara added. Toph's bare hand was squeezed tight and she felt a grateful smile overcome her. "And a lot of time for your Big Sister to watch over you."
Toph's hand involuntarily clenched back. She didn't need to ask, it was OK. She reached out her open head and came upon a smooth, flat surface. Forehead. Light traces of oil - Aang's skin was dry. She ran her fingers down and reached a somewhat bulbous blob of nose. Hee. Katara had a pudgy nose, very different from Aang's. Her cheeks were defined and strong, her ears round and stiff, her hair a trailing, thick and frizzy mess.
"I know my ears aren't as big as Aang's," Katara joked. Ah, so Aang had told her. No wonder she seemed so comfortable with it.
"Heehee, well...Remember a while back, when I said I wish I could tell you if you were pretty? But I couldn't?"
"Hm?" It took her a moment. "In Ba Sing Se? When we had our girl's day?"
"Yea," acknowledged, letting her hand fall onto Katara's shoulder. She felt Katara's powerful, steady heart beat course through her fingertips. "Now I think I can. You're a beautiful Big Sister."
"Thanks, Toph," Katara laughed, patting the hand on her shoulder.
"I don't want you guys to leave," Toph muttered timidly, her walls crumbled into a pile at this point.
"I know," Katara confidently replied. "I'm not going to. We aren't going to. I told you that you're like our sister, and our family sticks together. I promise."
Memories of a man and a woman dismissing Toph to be cared after by sterile servants were aggressively shoved aside to make room for this moment and the others like it she had recently come across. It was uplifting and relieving. Toph's concern for how tough or strong she was had ceased mattering at some point earlier without her realization until now. Carrying her own weight had become tiring. Refusing to ask for assistance was a burden. But this: this was invigorating and empowering. Maybe Destiny wasn't as harsh on her as she had given it credit for being. Maybe letting fruits fall to her like this was a good thing, and she simply needed to stop hiding behind her fortress of rock to receive them.