The fire had been reduced a small pile of withering embers, and Toph was about finished absorbing their remnants of heat. She tucked her feet in and planted them on the ground, feeling a relaxed sonata of slowed heartbeats and gentle breaths. She had been falling asleep early for the past couple of days since their field trip had begun, failing to notice something. There were two tents: Sokka and Suki slept in one, their bodies flopped around each other, while Aang irregularly slept not on the open ground but in Katara's tent. Based on the vibrations, Katara's hand was planted on his chest.
Toph sat for a moment as a number of shaken thoughts were finally beginning to settle. It wasn't as if anyone had been hiding their realized feelings for each other, but something about the stark contrast of the busy Ba Sing Se and the isolated field made it painfully clear that in all of this, Toph was still sleeping with rocks as snuggle buddies.
She stood up, leaving the fire to fizzle itself out, and found her way over to the bulging mass of flesh apart from the camp. It pulsated slowly with each large, drawing breath. When she reached it, she ran her hands through the thick mess of fur therapeutically, inhaling the unique scent. With a few twitches of her fingers, she slowly lifted a pillar of earth a few feet into the air, gently positioning herself so she could slip into the beast's saddle without disturbing him.
"Shhh, it's just me, Momo," she whispered, settling down next to the grouchy creature. She scooped his half-asleep body up and laid down on her back, propping him onto her chest. She focused on the sensation his body produced.
Ta-Tump ta-tump ta-tump.
It just wasn't the same as a human heart. Like Sokka's. Er, or Aang's. Or Katara's. But it was something. She considered for a moment how fascinating the heart was, pumping steadily like a drum come to life, all on its own. She shifted her focus to her own heartbeat.
Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump.
She could manipulate the ground beneath her, create landslides from a mountain, and bend freaking metal into a suit of armor around her, but there was no way to bend this lump of muscles, no way to direct the course of her blood, or change its speed. Her heart operated on its own without her consent. She simply had to work with it. And that kind of pissed her off.
Appa's groaning startled her awake, the vibrations quaking through her whole body, shocking it like a wave of icy water.
"Top o' the mornin' to ya, lass!" Sokka's voice jeered.
A clattering of objects getting tossed on board jerked her to attention to her side like another splash of ice.
"What the hell?" she growled as she felt Sokka's weight settle into Appa's saddle. "I was sleeping! Ya think you coulda been a little more gentle with the waking up?"
As Suki hopped inside, Sokka gave Toph a quizzical look.
"Well, geez, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bison, didn't they?" he teased, flicking his finger into the side of her head. "Last I checked, 'gentle' isn't exactly what you're all about."
She sat with crossed arms but her frown chipped away a bit. He did have a point. The others clambered aboard, and Katara, without a word, sifted her strong but soft hands through Toph's hair, straightening out the loose ends she had disheveled in her sleep.
"So you thought Appa would help you get some beauty sleep, huh?" Katara joked as Aang disappeared, only to reappear upon Appa's enormous skull a second later.
"Seems to do the trick for Momo," she replied, letting her arms drop. "He was lonely up here last night, so I thought I'd keep him company." The creature in question glided onto her shoulder and gave her a lick on the cheek with his slippery, smooth tongue.
"Looks like he appreciated the thought," Katara concluded with a laugh.
And with that, the world vanished, shrinking into only a six-legged beast that tilted upward.
"Wh-whoa!" Toph spat out. "We're leaving already?"
"It's midday, Sleeping Beauty," Sokka informed, settling himself down. Toph felt a bit of blood swell in her cheeks as Momo continued to lick at her, so she dismissed the lemur with a pat on the head. Sokka continued, "If we're gonna hit the waterfall by sundown we need to head off now."
"Oh," was all Toph had to say about the matter.
Gee, thanks for checking with me about this, guys...
"We've spent so much time in the fire nation lately," Katara pointed out. "I can't wait to relax at a waterfall again."
"I can't wait to take you cliff diving," Aang added in complete contrast to the word 'relax.' The way he spoke made it clear he was directing that specifically at Katara.
"I'm sure that'll be quite an experience," she agreed. Toph could feel Katara's heart's pace pick up for a moment. With the rest of the world a blank, everyone's bodies became more clear. She could feel Sokka and Suki's bodies sitting extremely close, and it was hard to distinguish exactly where one or the other was for a moment, as they had their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders. Some focus helped her distinguish where their pulses differentiated. She couldn't make out what they were whispering from all of the rushing wind, but they kissed briefly. Something about their embrace irked her. Couldn't they keep all that mushy stuff to themselves?
That stinging, warm feeling on her face had returned without her realizing it until Katara had called to her. She could feel the girl's weight crawling over to her side of the bison's back.
"What?" she bluntly replied, probably more irritably than she'd meant it.
"What's wrong?" Katara asked, quieter this time.
"Why do you think something's wrong?" Toph grumbled, flopping her hand in her palm, elbow resting on the saddle's edge. "Nothing's wrong, I'm fine. Geez. Stop being such a worrywart."
She could feel Katara's breath puff out a quick exhale - a silent laugh - before the girl's hand rested on her shoulder. Part of Toph felt like smacking it away but something else fought the urge off. She appreciated the squeezing sensation she received on her arm in condolence. Receiving a comforting gesture was making her doubt her own dismissive mood.
"Well, all right," Katara said politely. "If you need a girl talk...I'm always here." She rubbed her palm back and forth a couple of times before calmly withdrawing her contact.
"I know," Toph muttered, her face directed off into the fuzzy expanse of whirls and swooshing wind. "Thanks," she added wistfully.