A/N: This chapter has a lot of different things going on from different places. A conversation I had with my wife about things a guy just generally doesn't know, a reference to LOST, all kinds of things. Enjoy."Yes, Sir. I'm feeling much better now." Toph's mind raced through possibilities of what would be best to say next. "Thanks," was what she came up with. Her memories of 'proper' conduct with adults made her feel like she could be conducting herself with more finesse, but she couldn't recall how to do so.
"What's this 'Sir' business, young lady?" his raw voice inquired with a hearty laugh. "If you're going to be a part of this family from now on, you're going to have to start calling me Hakoda."
"Ah-All right, Hakoda," she replied with a nod, trying not to mumble. The last time she had encountered Hakoda in any proper form had been after Sokka and Zuko had broken him free from the Boiling Rock Prison. It had felt weird to know this man was Katara and Sokka's father, a leader of their tribe, and yet he was so much less formal than her own parents. He let his children take care of themselves, run free around the world, even when he knew there was danger. Toph respected that and wished her own-...She wished those people had that much confidence in her own abilities without her having to prove anything.
"Are you sure you're feeling all right, Toph?" he asked suspiciously.
Toph realized that her hand was gripping her stomach, which was feeling weird and abnormally full.
"She's a little shaken up," Katara explained, her fingers tickling Toph's bangs. "But thanks to the Mikita family she's got a good set of clothes so she's a lot warmer now."
"Yea, it's...really cold around here," Toph noted, scratching at her arm. The clothes were definitely warm and surprisingly comfortable but she wasn't used to them. They made her whole body feel a bit slower and heavier. "How do you guys survive in this ice pile?" she wondered in earnest. "I mean, you guys don't even waterbend?"
"Life here can be dangerous if you're not careful," Hakoda explained. "But we're also free to live as we please." Thum thum thum his footsteps drummed as he retrieved a bowl from somewhere behind. "Nature is our ruler. She can be unforgiving and cruel but unlike the rule of man, She holds no biases. We survive here by living by Nature's law, and I would prefer that to any law created by man." That was one way of looking at it, huh? Kind of like how Toph ran away from hoity-toity society to be free in the open world. It certainly made things more difficult but more rewarding. She believed she understood where Hakoda was coming from.
Blup, whrrrrp. He had filled his bowl in the pot of soup just outside as Toph had contemplated his words.
"That makes sense," she told him as he returned, swallowing his bites whole.
"Stick with my children and they'll take good care of you, Toph," he advised. "They've become stronger than I ever imagined they could for their age." There was a moment of silence in which Toph imagined the two were somehow projecting affection through that mystical ability of 'sight,' but Toph could feel the pride in Hakoda's voice well - pride, that which she never received willingly and fought so hard to intimidate out of an audience, a wrestler, a stupid boy with a boomerang...
"Toph here is even stronger than when you last met her," Katara assured. "She's probably the greatest earthbender I've ever met." In reply, Toph nodded casually and smirked.
"Not gonna argue with that," she gloated.
"I recall seeing some of your work," Hakoda noted. "Truly impressive for someone as young as yourself."
"It's a gift," Toph 'humbly' shrugged the compliment off. In a strange way, she was starting to get tired of hearing about how strong she was, how powerful her earthbending had become. What did it matter if inside she was confused and angry? She remembered Aang describing running away from his people - knowing he would be strong and powerful some day, but it not mattering because he wouldn't be happy.
"She really is like a sister to us, Dad," Katara insisted, shaking Toph a bit by the shoulders playfully. "We are going to include her, too, right?"
"Of course," Hakoda agreed, belting out a laugh.
"Include me in what?" Toph wondered. It sounded good, based on the way Katara said it.
"You'll find out," Katara teased with a giggle, swaying her body left and right.
"Hey, guys!" It was Meathead. When did he show up? She hadn't even felt him-oh, right. Ice below. Boots on her feet. Her sensibility was practically zero compared to what she was used to.
"Hey, Sokka," Katara greeted, her tone noticeably less enthusiastic than it had just been, but still sweet enough not cover any hint of irritation Toph had caught onto.
"Did you pull in a good catch, my boy?" Slap. Slap.
"Well, it wasn't...amazing," Sokka admitted timidly. "But it's definitely enough for what we need for today."
"Good to hear, good to hear...Ahhh, and Suki, my Dear!"
"Did she do well, Sokka?"
"She did great! It's like she's gone fishing before, or something!"
"I live on an island, Sweetie."Sweetie? Gag.
"I know! It's great! I didn't even have to teach you anything."
"I'm a fast learner."
"Haha. Well, I'm glad that my son has found someone who matches his level of keen thinking." Stupid idiot ninja and her dumb-Katara's hands squeezed at her shoulders soothingly, making it simpler to leave her bitterness alone.
"I wouldn't say keen," Suki teased.
"Heyheyhey, Sokka-Style is like a fine wine that must be left to sit to improve its flavor. You can't rush genius."
"Genius?" Katara laughed. "So that's what we're calling it now..."
A sudden pain gripped itself around Toph's abdomen. Kind of like a stomach ache combined with a charlie horse. She absorbed it as best she could, hoping no one in all their jest would notice. It calmed down as quickly as it had come. Maybe swallowing all that fish without chewing hadn't been such a good idea?
"Heya, there, Toph!" Sokka greeted. "You look a lot better. Feelin' all right?"
"Yea," she responded flatly. "I'm fine."
"Awesome. She's going to be in it, too, right?" His voice projected at a different angle, like he was talking above her, to Katara.
"She is," Katara beamed.
"Well, all right! You ready, Rocky?"
The clamoring died down, leaving them to stand in silence.
"I'm kinda nervous," Toph whispered to her right.
"Why?" Aang whispered back.
"I dunno. This just...feels weird."
"'Cuz they're strangers?"
"Weren't we strangers at some point, too?" Aang pointed out with a sly glee.
"Good point, Twinkletoes."
The chill of the icy breeze tossed tiny, frigid particles at Toph's face, causing her brows and nose to wrinkle with discomfort and her body to shiver. She rubbed her arms with her gloves with brisk urgency to be done with this whole event. She wasn't so sure she liked these gloves, either. They were like boots for her hands. All thick and furry and she couldn't feel anything through them. Better that than her hands getting frostbitten off.
cronsh cronsh cronsh.Footsteps, but out here in the snow and ice, everyone's footsteps in their thick boots all kind of felt the same. Grr. A voice began to speak out. It was Hakoda.
"We have come together today to recognize the deeds of two young individuals who have found their way into the hearts of members of our tribe. They have protected our kin and have been accepted as family by our own. Like drops of water into a pool, so do they join together with the rest of us as honorary members of the Southern Water Tribe."
A series of cronshes mingled together and Toph could feel two figures approach them while Hakoda stepped away, likely into the crowd Toph had been told existed but could not detect.
"Aang," came the bold voice of Sokka from the right, in front of Twinkletoes. He was solemn and heartfelt, a side that Toph rarely experienced but relished. It was the rarity yet the truthfulness when he acted like this that made it so fascinating to her. "When we first met, I remember being so hesitant to help you out. I was selfish and couldn't see past this village to what else was out there. You gave me an excuse to leave home and see the world, and I found out who I really was and what I really cared about. And ya know what? You became part of what I really cared about. Not because you were the Avatar, but because of who you were as Aang. I used to think you were just an annoying crazy kid who looked a little too wide-eyed when he was with my sister." Some giggles flowed out from the nothingness beyond and the four of them shared a moment of laughter amongst themselves before Sokka continued.
"But as much as I'd like to think I've grown up from all of this...crazy stuff we've been through, there's no doubt in my mind that you've grown a lot more." Sfff. Toph believed she could barely sense that Sokka was resting his hand on Aang's shoulder. "You're braver than anyone else I know. You never quit, you never accept failure - and even when you fail, you just use that as an excuse to do better next time." Ssfff. The arm slid off. The words he spoke had abnormally long pauses between them, leaving Toph feeling like she was missing something. "Bravery...Wisdom...Love...This is what I see in you, Aang. You may not be as smart as I am," he slipped in humorously, "but you're a lot wiser. I'm proud of you, and I'm honored to welcome you to our tribe as my brother." Clap. Their hands grasped together tightly. Sniff. Oh, boy. That sounded like Aang was crying. Damnit. This almost was making her cry and they hadn't even gotten to her yet...
"Toph," Katara called loudly, following Sokka's pattern. "You and I have always had our differences. It took us a long time to get along well together and even then...we still have our moments." She choked out a laugh. "We are very different people. But I think we have come to need each other. You made me realize that...-" Her breathing became sharp for a moment. She was fighting back tears herself, and it was making Toph's own eyes inflate. "-...made me realize that even when we lose people we love...-" Her mother. "-...we have to keep going and we have to do it for ourselves. We have to stand on our own two feet. Only then can we walk alongside those we love." A gloved hand fell upon her left shoulder, accompanied by a sniff. "As much as we have all grown, you remind me that there are some things that define us, things we should never let anyone change. Even when people hurt you for being who you are, you don't ever let them change you from being true to yourself." The hand slid off. Toph could hear Katara shifting something around in her hands. Nimble fingers brushed against her forehead, pushing her flopping bangs aside and tucking them behind her ears.
"Strength..." The tip of Katara's bare index finger pressed itself against the right side of her forehead, and in that instant, Katara's body became apparent. Her rough, emotional breath, her elevated heart-rate, as the finger, dipped in something wet, ran down to Toph's brow, leaving a trail of sticky substance. "Fortitude..." Again, the finger returned, this time to the middle of her head and down. Toph appreciated the contact in this environment of relative emptiness. "Self-Respect..." And finally, the left side of her head. "This is what I see in you, Toph. You never give up and you are true to who you are." Aw, crap. All this crying was getting tiring. Toph rubbed at her face with her glove, absorbing tears into its thick material. "I'm proud of you, and I'm honored to welcome you into our tribe as my sister." Toph was busy wiping at her face while Katara gently removed the glove on her unoccupied right hand. She clenched her slender, bare hand around Toph's, and Toph squeezed back.
cronsh cronsh cronsh
"Here," Hakoda's voice whispered. Clunnlp. She could sense a cup of metal being passed to Sokka, and the sound it made indicated that there was water inside. Toph remembered that this was the cup they were supposed to drink from to kind of seal the whole deal at the end. Hakoda finished the ceremony.
"This young man, Aang, and this young woman, Toph, come to us with no families of their own. Our own family, Sokka and Katara, have welcomed these two into their hearts. Now, so shall we, with the blessing of the sea."
"With the blessing of the sea," the congregation echoed.
"With the blessing of the sea, now you are like me," said Sokka with serene joy, passing the cup to Aang. Ffffpph he sipped. Aang then sputtered a bit, clearly put off by the water's flavor. Was it sea water? That would kind of make sense here, huh?
Toph's mind and heart were overcome with a flood of thoughts and emotions. Her eyes were no longer draining out tears but remained full and quivering as Katara handed her the glove she had pulled off. Clunnlp. Now Katara had the metal cup. She sniffled again, gently pressing the metal into Toph's gloves. She grasped it carefully with both hands, savoring the tin. She wished her gloves were still off. This all felt so different than the formalities she was used to. There was a raw emotion to this that no event she had ever gone to under the Bei Fong name had carried.
"With the blessing of the sea, now you are like me," Katara whispered warmly, her voice reminding Toph of a campfire. Toph didn't chicken out - she took a normal sip, coughing as the salty water passed down her throat. It burned but it was cleansing. As it hit her stomach she was gripped by another cramp in her abdomen. Ugh, what the hell? Ruining a perfect moment here. She toughed it out, unwavering, and passed the cup back to Katara.
Before she knew it, she was pressed into a pile of fur and leather and flesh, warm breath and gloves. Such a simple ceremony, but it felt life-changing somehow. The most extravagant thing that had been used was a dented old tin cup and yet Toph felt more power in drinking from that piece of old metal than any jeweled chalice she had ever placed her hands upon.
Gurk. Ulllgh. What was the deal with her stomach? This was getting annoying. She was actually kind of enjoying her time in this foreign land with these people and her body just didn't seem to be agreeing with it. This was a problem given that they were trying to eat lunch.
"That was...so beautiful, guys," Suki mused thoughtfully.
"It was my idea to do it," Sokka bragged.
"What was it, exactly?" Aang wondered.
"That was the right of passage ceremony we hold when accepting new members into our tribe that weren't born into us," Hakoda explained. "Usually it's when someone from one village moves to another, such as through marriage. Or if someone from the Northern Water Tribe nation were to move here, we would conduct that ritual."
"Sooo...It usually is for Water Tribe members?" Toph checked. Hee. That made her and Aang special, didn't it?
"That's true, Toph," Hakoda replied. "But Sokka felt it would be appropriate to modify the ritual to suit you two being accepted. I felt it was fitting given how close you all seem to be, and that neither of you seem to have anyone else to call 'family.'"
"It's an honor," Aang proudly assured. "But Suki, why didn't you join us?"
"It just didn't feel right," Suki explained. "You guys have been traveling together for so long...I just feel like I haven't...'earned' it yet, you know?"Damn right you haven't.
Toph felt a sharp pain bump her in the rib.
"Hey," Katara scolded in a whisper through the chewing and Aang replying to Suki. "That's rude, Toph." Wha? Wait, had she muttered that out loud? Clearly, only Katara had heard. Thank goodness she was sitting on the corner of the table, then.
"Whatever," she grumbled back. She didn't care. She was feeling grouchy and her stomach was bothering her and her back was hurting again and she was feeling cold from all this stupid...cold. She should feel great after the deluge of pleasant emotions that had recently been blasted across her being but her body was simply disagreeing with her heart right then.
"-a Kyoshi warrior, so I kind of already have a tribe I belong to."
"I guess that makes sense," Aang admitted. "I used to have a tribe, but..."
"You have a new one, now," Katara affectionately told him, kissing him with a smitch.
"That's right," Hakoda acknowledged. "I understand that you may end up being a more...involved...member of our tribe some day," he prodded.
"Ahhh, w-well, maybe," Aang fumbled out, kacling, dropping his fork.
"Dad!" Katara spat with a lightly incredulous tone. "Don't intimidate him," she giggled. "We're not adults, we don't know what we're going to do just yet."
"Soon enough, Aang will be a man," Hakoda pointed out. Slap, pat, pat. "Just like Sokka here."
"If Sokka is a man," Katara joked, "then I fear for the future of our people."
"Sokka will make a great leader," Hakoda insisted. "Especially if he has his family here to support him." There was a calm silence that fell over everyone as they continued to eat. Toph knew what that silence meant: everyone wasn't entirely sure if this place was where they would end up. Well, one person seemed to know, at least.
"I'm gonna try my hardest," Sokka acknowledged. "I just...think I'll need some lessons in public speaking first."
"Wait, you're going to become chief of this tribe?" Suki muttered. "Did you finally decide?"
"Uh, y-yea," Sokka sheepishly answered. "Dad's gonna need to take a break and retire at some point, am I right?"
"Hahaaa," Hakoda bellowed. "Let's not jump the gun here, Son. There's still a lot I need to teach you. But by the time I'm done with him, Suki, I promise he'll be a strong warrior and chief."
"Oh," Suki said simply. In that one word Toph could hear the underlying tone: 'uh-huh, I see, so that's how it is.'Whatsamatter, Suki? Got a problem with Meathead being the chief of his own people? Not good enough for ya? Want him to go run back with you to your pretty Miss Makeup Brigade?
"So, Katara," Aang eagerly piped up. "You finally wanna go cliff diving today?"
"Cliff-? Wh-ah-are you sure that'd be a good idea around here?"
"Are you kidding? It'd be an awesome idea! It's so beautiful here, and-and there's so many big ice cliffs by the ocean!"
"Dad," Katara pleaded, "Don't you think cliff diving around here would be dangerous?"
"Far be from me to tell you kids what's dangerous," Hakoda dismissed her submission. "You've faced greater dangers this year alone than I ever have in my whole life!"
"If you're too chicken to go have some fun..." Sokka taunted. A buh-bawk seemed to find its way from his mouth.
"What? I am not scared," Katara protested with a huff.
"Then you'll come?" Aang asked.
"Yes, yes, fine," Katara agreed, sighing.
"I wanna go," Toph decided. "Could I go, too?"
"I'll go," Sokka added. "You up for it, Suki?"
"I'm not so sure," Suki mumbled with doubt. "Aang and Katara can bend water and air. We...can't."
"Well, that's why you dive into the ocean!" Sokka clarified. "Water doesn't kill ya."
"Unless it's freezing and full of orca-narwhals," Suki disagreed.
"Baaah, well, I'm not gonna force ya," Sokka conceded with a groan. "Hey, Toph, will you go cliff diving with me?"
"With you? I was...I was gonna go with Aang or Katara," Toph explained. "Like Suki said, I don't wanna die, thanks."
"Yea," Katara agreed carefully. "That's probably a good idea."
"Ohhh, come on, we gotta live it up," begged Sokka. Aw, he was being pathetic about it. Well, if he insisted...
"OK, OK, fine. But I'd feel better if Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen kept an eye on us while we do."
"Yea, that'd be fine," Aang agreed. "But we get to go first."
"Pff, doesn't matter to me," said Toph with nonchalance.
"Doesn't matter?" Sokka demanded. "Of course it does! You don't just...let people take dibs on first like that! Have I taught you nothing?" Toph grinned, soaking up Sokka's attention like a sponge.
If Suki was going to be a stick in the snow and be all against joining in, hey, that was her choice. Toph was going to try and appreciate this wasteland as best she could with her new family.
"I don't get it," Sokka grumbled, passing back and forth. His thuming feet weren't the same as the thiping Toph was used to. "Suki's been acting strange since we got here. It's like she doesn't like it here or something!"
Toph slowly groaned, "Wow, what is not to love?" Sprawled across the ground of the igloo, her head leaning into Aang's lap, she huffed her hair from her face. "The empty fields of snow? The unbelievable cold that bites your fingers off? Having to struggle to find food every day? Yeeea. I don't get why she doesn't want to just live here forever." Aang snickered at her dry humor.
"Hey, it can't be that bad, I stayed here for decades!"
"Against your will, Twinkletoes." Toph clarified. "Little different." She shifted her weight around. Aang's bony lap was more comfy when they were both wearing puffy coats.
"Do you really think it's so horrible here?" Katara asked defensively.
"Never said anything was horrible," Toph calmly replied. "Just kinda hard to see the appeal, I guess." She remembered Iroh telling her how beautiful it was here, but she had yet to be proven that this was true.
"It may not be glamorous," Katara admitted. "But this is our home."
"Yea!" Sokka vehemently cried, as if it were common sense that everyone respect this place. "We grew up here. Our dad is the Chief! Why would we want to live anywhere else?"
"Well," Katara slowly objected, clearly deciding her next words carefully. "I can understand why you want to stay here, Sokka, but...Some of us might want to live somewhere else."
"Whaaat?" he moaned miserably. "You mean I'm gonna be here, leading a village, without my sister to keep me in line?" Katara laughed in reply.
"You might be, Mr. Man," she teased. "It's not like I wouldn't visit!" she added in a high tone.
"I might not," Aang mocked with a chuckle. "Toph's right, it's cold around here."
"Abandoned by the ones I trusted," Sokka seethed in exaggeration. "Toph. Would you leave me, too? Get back into pro rock-wrestling or something?"Oh, crap. What do I say to that? Would I stay? It's so miserable here...But the people are so kind. And I like him a lot...but would it be worth staying here? Forever?
"Uh, well...I dunno, Snoozles. Sorry. It's not exactly blind-earth-bender-friendly around here."
ULGH, there with the stomach again. She gasped and clutched at her abdomen. It calmed down and she sighed.
"You OK?" Aang asked timidly.
"I think so," she grumbled.
"Think it's something you ate?" Sokka wondered.
"'Cuz I mean, if Katara cooked it, that could be it."
"I'm just saying..."
"I'm not a bad cook! There's not exactly much to work with around here!"
"You kiddin'? There's all kinds of stuff! Cooking's all about making the best with what you've got."
"Are you sure you're all right?" Aang's voice cut through the sibling bickering.
"I'm fine, Twinkletoes," she growled, "Geez." She leaned up from his lap.You worry too much and you're always trying to help and maybe I don't want it! Ow, ow, stupid back is all sore again.
"-blubber can be made into all kinds of-"
"OK, we get it, Meathead!" Toph hissed. "Shut up, already!"You're dumb and stupid and...dumb. And Suki's not good for you.
"Toph?" Katara squeaked.Don't you even try to be all sweet with me, I know you don't think I'll be with your brother, but I'll show you.
"What?" Toph snapped, fists clenched. Damned stomach, urgh. She pretended like nothing was wrong.
"What is wrong?" Katara asked firmly, stressing each syllable.
"I..." Pain was shooting through Toph's head with each heartbeat. "I don't know," she moaned. "I think I'm sick or something."
"Here, um, let's...-" Toph's tightened arm was clutched by Katara and she was tugged around.
"You're not my mom!" She thrust her arm around, trying to break free. She felt powerless - Katara was bigger and stronger than she was. With no earth to bend, wussy Sugar Queen didn't seem so wussy, even without any water.
"Toph," Katara grunted, her grip tightening. Toph fought harder, but couldn't break free, her gloved wrists contained. "Calm down, OK? You said you're feeling sick, I just...Rrr...I just want to help!"I don't need your help! I don't care. I want to punch you! I want to punch everyone! I want to throw a mountain on your face! Everyone's face!
Toph screamed in futility before groaning in defeat, her head overcome with pain. She lost her senses for a moment and was suddenly being supported by Katara.
"Whoa, heyyyy," Sokka worriedly called, patting her on the arm. "You better take it easy, Kiddo."
"What do you think's wrong, Katara?" Aang wondered. Toph grabbed her forehead, her palm rubbing along the paint marks left from their ceremony.
"Uh, well, I-I'm not sure yet but I should be able to help her, I just need some time. Would you guys mind...um...-?"
"Oh! Yea, no prob, Sis," Sokka agreed. "C'mon, Aang. Let's go...er...Hunt something."
"Y-yea, OK...Um, get better, Toph." thum thum thum.
"Yea, Toph, get better!" Thum Thum Thum.Fufflllfluff.
"Here, lay down." Katara eased her to rest herself where she had slept the night prior, in the bed against the wall of what Toph had come to realize was a house made of ice. How such a place could be as cozy and...not freezing...while being made of snow defied all logic Toph had understood about cold weather.
"Toph," Katara firmly said as she tucked a wool blanket over Toph. "What happened with your stomach just now...has that been happening a lot lately?"
"Y-yea," Toph whimpered. Was she sick with something serious? Her moods seemed to be bouncing all over.
"And your back's been hurting?"
"Headaches? Feeling tired? Trouble sleeping?"
"Actually...Yea," she replied. Katara seemed to have some kind of idea, didn't she?
"And you've been grouchy and mood-swinging, too," Katara observed. "Mm-hm," she hummed to herself. Suddenly, Toph felt a jolt come from her chest on the left side as Katara's hand applied a bit of pressure.
"Ah-" Toph grunted from the pain, her whole body tense.
"Yep," Katara said to herself.
"What is it?" Toph pathetically sniveled. Katara giggled.
"It's OK, Toph, you're fine. This is normal. The good news is...it's nothing serious. It happens to lots of people. The bad news is that you're going to have to get used to it 'cuz it's going to happen on a regular basis..."