A/N: This chapter was difficult to write. I had to comb through the first half of it multiple times. I'm really hoping this chapter achieves the main effect it's intended to.
Thick hood drawn over her head, Toph listened to the sounds of Suki's carving with great impatience. She was hunched on the opposite side of the small tent, chin resting on her tucked knees, her hands clasped around her legs. The pain in her back was returning and ever so often her abdomen would ache a bit. She let out a drawn out sigh.
"Still not feeling so great, huh?" Suki observed. "Are you sure you don't want to come do this with me?"
"Something about a sick blind girl trying to carve something with a knife doesn't sound like a good idea," Toph explained.
"You don't have to use one of my knives, Toph," Suki pointed out. "You could use earthbending to make your own knife." What the hell are you talking...-?
Toph suddenly remembered her space-bracelet, which was tucked around her upper left arm, hidden away under her thick coat. Toph willed the bracelet to slide down her arm like a snake and coil itself out of her sleeve and into her gloved hand.
"Right!" Suki chirped in encouragement. "Having an excuse to earthbend can remind you of home a bit, don't you think?" Home? What is home anymore?
"What are you making?" Toph wondered, her mind playing around with the idea of participating.
"I'm making a necklace with the bones from today's hunt," Suki explained. "I'm making it for Aang so he can always remember the day he became a member of the Water Tribe."
"Uhhh, yea, I'm sure he's just gonna love wearing pieces of a dead animal on his neck," Toph dismissed Suki's attempts at being sentimental.
"If he always has a piece of that animal with him it will remind him that even in death, life carries on," Suki mused. Toph shrugged and sighed grumpily.
"That doesn't make any sense," she grumbled. Suki chuckled at Toph's negativity and clarified.
"Sure it does: that boar-walrus died, but because it died, the people in this village will have a healthy meal tonight and will all keep living. And these bones? They will continue to exist as tools to aid the people, or as this necklace to help symbolize Aang's connection to them."Blablabla, circle of life mumbo jumbo. Whatever.
"Don't you think there's something kind of beautiful about that?" Suki pondered, going back to her whittling. Scritch-skitch-scatch-clatch-scritch...
Toph had no reply, idly rubbing her fingers around her space stone, molding it like a chunk of clay. She didn't care much for waxing philosophy right then.
"You sure you don't want to carve some bone here with me?"
"Not in the mood."Leave me alone. I don't care about any of this junk. And what the hell made you think cutting bones would be fun for the blind girl?
"You sure you don't want to do any earthbending, at least? I'd figure you kind of miss it."Of course I miss it, but what good is playing with a rock going to do?
Toph's own cynicism was smacked upside the face by her logic as it pointed out how she was earthbending right then and there, playing with her strange rock, and it was proving to be very therapeutic.She has a good point, this feels nice, doesn't it?Fine, then. Stupid logic. You win.
"I guess," Toph admitted, the words struggling their way through her bitter lips. Her bracelet wound its way around her arm as she pulled her gloves off and irritably tossed them beside her. She flicked the rock back into her now bare palm and pinched her finger into the stone, creased it out, and turned it into a blade. She twirled it through the air with her finger tip, the sensation somewhat intoxicating after a few days with nary any bending. She grabbed a chunk of split bone, sliding her fingers across its rough surface. Holding it up between her right index and thumb, she twitched her left pointer, slicing her space-earth blade to remove a chip from the bone's corner with precision - skiff. The sensation of the bone being rattled by the impact was satisfying between her fingers. Toph hated to admit it - and she sure as hell wasn't going to out loud - but maybe Suki had been right. This was oddly relaxing.
"That's so amazing," Suki complimented, continuing her skitching. "I can't even imagine what it's like to be able to bend."
"I can't even imagine what it's like to be able to see," Toph remarked coldly, continuing to dice at her hunk of bone without missing a beat. There was a pause in Suki's actions and Toph savored the awkward moment as she worked on her own bone creation.
"So, you're in the same position I'm in," Suki declared calmly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Toph demanded in a grumble, whittling away.
"You don't know what to do with yourself," Suki noted, picking up her task, as well. "You have no parents to rebel against, no musclemen to rock wrestle, no Fire Lord to vanquish..." Toph slowed down to a stop at Suki's words. "No one left to fight. No one left to prove yourself to. So now you're confused and you don't know what to do with all of your anger and pride. I know what it's like, Toph. But you're taking it all out on everyone you don't trust." There was a hint of frustration in her tone, and Toph seriously contemplated the hypothesis for a moment. "Clearly, you don't trust me," Suki concluded with some bitterness, scratching away at a new bone chunk. "We've traveled together for weeks, I've saved your life..." A fierce skatch. "Twice," she mumbled, seemingly to herself. "Katara keeps telling me this is just how you are - that you push people away from yourself, that it takes time to earn your trust. I understand, but seriously: what do I have to do here, Toph? What do you want from me?"
Silence. Neither was shaving bone any more, neither said a word, neither moved a muscle. Confronting this idea was causing Toph's stomach to feel queasy, her back to tense up, and her hands to tremble.
I've saved your life. Twice.Ouch. There goes a hunk of my ego ripped out of my chest. What do I want from her? What could she do to make me stop being mad? She could give up on him and let me have him.But why would she do that? You obviously wouldn't.That's why she's my rival. One of us has to win. One of us has to lose.Are you really so sure about that?
"I don't want anything from you," Toph answered at last with a tart bite in her tone. Skiff. She made another clean slice, chipping away a large, unneeded chip of bone from her project.
"Then what do I have to do to get you to trust me?" Suki wondered. Her voice cracked ever so slightly. That tint of desperation and frustration was like a needle that pierced through a crack in Toph's shell. Suki was actually upset. Toph was hurting her by acting this way. She struggled to hide her guilt, pressing on with her work.
"Why do you care what I think so much?" Toph demanded impatiently. She placed her rounded out chunk of bone on the tent floor and drummed her fingers beside it to feel its weight and shape. She stabbed through it with her bending blade repeatedly, cutting a hole through it.
"Toph," Suki sighed, "If I'm going to be a part of this family, that makes us like sisters."Fuck you, we're not sisters. Katara is my sister."Why wouldn't I care about what you think?"You obviously don't care about what I feel.
"I already have a sister."
"There's not any room for one more?"
"I'm not sure yet."
Suki huffed, clearly frazzled, and hastily spat out, "Did I do something that upset you, Toph?"
Toph couldn't tell if the pain in her abdomen was another cramp or the fear of confronting the situation.
Well? Did she do something wrong?Of course she did! She took him away from me before I realized how much I cared.So you're blaming her for having the courage to do what you're too cowardly to do?No, of course not!Then what are you blaming her for?For ruining our Fearsome Foursome, for turning him into a blubbering lovebird who forgets about me.For saving your life? For saving his life when he was protecting you? For saving Appa when you let him get captured?Appa wasn't my fault! I couldn't do anything!But you still felt horribly guilty about it. It ate away at you. And it wasn't your fault.Well, yea, Aang's my friend, I felt horrible...It's not Suki's fault that she has feelings for Sokka. Aang realized that losing Appa wasn't your fault.Fine, I get it. I don't really have a good reason. I'm supposed to, like, not get mad at her. Whatever.
"Well?" Suki insisted, her patience thinned out by Toph's cold shoulder.
"No," Toph snapped, slapping her fists in her lap in a pout. "OK?"
"If I didn't do anything, then what's your problem?" She's totally not gonna let this shit go, is she?
"Nothing! Geez!" Toph chucked her hands into the air.Why do we have to talk about this right now? What the hell does it matter to you?
"The longer you keep lying, the worse it's going to be for us both," Suki warned. "If you don't let me fix whatever I did wrong, what am I supposed to do?"Urgh, you can't fix it, it's nothing you did wrong, it's me! It's me.Right. It's you. What will you do about it?
Toph's head throbbed in frustration as it grappled with this conclusion. Weeks ago she wouldn't have even seriously considered this idea, but her friends had been worming this their way into her well-fortified defenses to awaken that which she had been ignoring for so long: a conscience, or something.
"You didn't...-" Toph began, trailing off. No! Don't say it! Don't give in to her.Why are you so against admitting when you're wrong?It makes me look weak!I hate to tell you this, but right now? You are weak.No, I'm not!Yea, Toph, let's just keep trying to tell ourselves that, because look how well that's been going? Or do you need to randomly burst into tears again before you realize it?
"What?" Suki asked, hanging on Toph's response.
"You didn't do anything wrong!" Toph growled swiftly, as if ridding herself of the thought. "It's me, OK?"
"Then why are you taking out your problems on me?" Suki demanded.
"I don't know!" Toph roared.Well, that's kind of a lie, isn't it?"I've got...a lotta crap going on right now. OK?"
"I know, Toph," Suki assured softly, her defensiveness peeling away. "And I'm sorry about everything that happened. But is there really nothing I can do to help?"Give me space! Geez! Damnit! Fuck! URGH.
"You can leave me alone!" Toph hissed, rubbing her aching forehead. "I never asked for your help! I don't even want to be around you right now!" Anoher moment of icy silence.
"Why?" Suki demanded. Toph's heart twitched with regret in the tiny prick of pain Suki's voice exuded with that singe word.
"Just...'cuz!" Toph gripped at her head with both hands now, her mind pulsating with pain and anger. Her brain exploded. "I don't care about how you can't bend or how I can't see! I don't care about your stupid Magic Makeup Brigade! I don't care what you think about me and I don't want your help! Why won't you just leave me alone?"
Wow. You're a jerk, Toph. What did Suki really ever do to you but help you?Shutup-shutup-shutup! I don't care!
"Fine," Suki murmured in defeat. Spf spf. Clatkle-klak-kk."If it's what you want, I'll leave you alone." Yow. Toph could practically hear the emotional bruise she'd created on Suki's heart through the girl's voice. Why did she find herself hating that?
"W-wait, Miss Makeup," Toph eased, struggling to maintain her cool. "I just-...It's-...I don't want you to think...that you did anything wrong."I can't believe I'm saying this."I need time to...work some stuff out."
"I understand," Suki lamented.No, you don't, don't lie to me.Maybe if you weren't lying to Suki she'd have no reason to.
"You need to be left alone," Suki acknowledged. "You always need to be left alone. You'd rather run away than admit defeat - but you'd rather fight than run away. So when you're confronted with a problem, you fight it, or you run from it. You don't try to resolve it."Who the fuck are you, telling me who I am?
"I'm exactly the same way, Toph. We're warriors. It's in our blood to fight. But you and me? We're too cowardly to admit defeat. We'll run or lie or sneak around it, but we won't accept loss, only victory or retreat."Am I really like that?
"We fight because we love to," Suki added, laughing in spite of herself. "Sometimes for no other reason. I used to think I fought for the Kyoshi people. But now that the war is over...I can't seem to find peace. I'm realizing that maybe I've always been fighting for myself. Life just...doesn't seem right without something to battle. I bet you feel the same way after what has happened with your parents."
Toph's whittling was her way of channeling out her frustration as Suki mused and thought so deeply about these stupid ideas. Stupid ideas that were maybe true.
"But, Toph," Suki insisted with firm resolve. "We both have to learn to get over this urge to prove ourselves. When Sokka and I first met, I felt like I had to prove to him that I wasn't just some girl - that I was strong, that I was a leader." Yea, great, rub it in. Go right ahead. "When I was in prison, I had to prove it all over again. It sounds like you've always been trying to show how strong you are, too. To your parents, to other earthbenders, even to us. But we're done now, Toph. No one doubts our strength anymore."
Toph blew at her work, dusting bone fragments away. The shape was done, now to smooth it a bit. She warped her stone around the object and gently willed it to dance across the bone's surface, smoothing it out.
I'm not listening...
"Sokka's dad told me something earlier today...I think both of us need to think about this, Toph. He said: All paths of the warrior end one of two ways: you end your battles and live a life of peace, or you fall to the hands of an enemy."
Clak-taklet-tak.She placed her incomplete necklace in a pouch, the bones rattling about.
Toph's task finished, she gripped the hard, smooth item she'd made in her hands like a precious treasure. Suki ended her monologue, clearly lamenting Toph's lack of response.
"I've been selfish, Toph. I've just been fighting for myself. And now I'm realizing that I have other things in my life worth putting down my weapons for. Reasons to stop fighting, to stop trying so hard to look strong. None of that matters anymore. I really think we could help each other out, Toph, but..."
Sph, sph, sph.
"It sounds like you need to figure out what you've been fighting for, and what is it you're looking for now that there's no one left to fight - what it is that has you so angry."
Sph, sph, fwoff-ff, cronsh cronsh cronsh...
Toph stewed in her own mental juices for a few minutes in silence, rubbing her thumbs along the surface of what she had just crafted. She contemplated everything her ears had taken in that her mind hadn't yet.
She's right, Toph. You know she is.Yea. I do.
Toph eased her meteor rock back onto her arm, comforted by its presence. She slid the bone ring she had carefully created up and down her pointer finger, its size too large for her. She hoped she had gauged it correctly.
What are you angry about? What have you been fighting for? What are you going to do with yourself now?I have to figure that out.
"Wow, this is beautiful," Aang admired, running his hands across the pieces of bone fragments, each one unique and painstakingly hand-carved.
"Do you like it?" Suki nervously wondered. "I know you were feeling bad about what happened, but...I just thought this would be a good symbol of your ties to Katara and Sokka's tribe."
Aang gazed at the relic with a bittersweet smile.I hope you forgive me, creature of the earth.
"It's so pretty, Suki!" Katara complimented.
"I love it, Suki," Aang insisted. "I'll wear it proudly."
"Heeeey," Sokka shouted, pointing at his neck. "It's like mine! We match!" He grabbed Aang by the shoulder and crushed their sides together. "Brothers in arms!"
"Brothers in necks, really," Aang chuckled, handing the item to Katara as Sokka rubbed his head with his knuckle. Katara carefully tied the necklace around his neck, it's surfaces dry and slightly rough against his skin. He instantly felt tougher wearing it.
"Letting that hair grow out again, huh?" Sokka observed, his nuggie transforming into a playful palm rub.
"I think he looks cute with some hair on his head," Katara twittered, her hand stroking his neck affectionately as she pecked his slightly hairy skull with her lips.
"That's a good enough reason for me!" Aang decided.
"He has a lot of catching up to do if he's going to have hair like us," Hakoda teased, rotating a slab of meat around his cooking fire with care.
"Where's Toph?" Sokka pondered, scratching the hairs on his chin.
"Oh," Suki muttered, her face washed over with sorrow.
"Is she OK?" Katara questioned with some concern. Katara sure had seemed really worried about Toph lately. Aang had a feeling Katara knew something he didn't. After he'd blabbed about her liking a boy, he felt like he'd have to earn some of her trust again as far as secrets were concerned.
"No, she's...She's fine," Suki explained with some reservation and a discouraged look.
"What happened?" Katara pressed cautiously, her hands slipping from Aang's shoulders and she stepped over.
"Well, I...I was just trying to spend time with her, you know? And she was just...I don't know. She seemed in a good mood when you guys came back, and then you and Sokka left, and it was like she just turned grumpy all of a sudden." Suki was speaking quickly, clearly flustered. "I tried to help her relax - I know she's going through a lot - but it was like everything I did just made her more upset somehow! And then I got upset and we kind of yelled at each other a bit, and...then she told me she didn't want my help, she didn't even want to be around me, and...wanted me to leave her alone." By the end of her whirlwind explanation, she was grasping her forehead with a shaky sigh. "I just don't understand what I did wrong."
"I'm sorry, Suki," Katara eased, giving the Kyoshi girl a hug. "Toph can be...difficult...to deal with sometimes. I'm sure she didn't really mean to hurt you." Katara wrapped her arms around her waist contemplatively as she turned away. Aang recognized that look - furrowed brows, lips puckering out just a bit...Katara totally knew what was going on. Did it have to do with Toph being sick? Yea, that had to be it.
"Yea, she's been acting weird lately," Sokka observed. "She's yelling at us one minute and then happy as a clam-crab the next. Is it that time of the month or something?" Aang recognized that phrase. Sokka often explained to Aang when Katara was acting irregularly angry that it was 'that time' and that they had best just steer clear. Aang didn't understand why girl's had a time like this where they acted kind of crazy. He vaguely recalled Sokka explaining something about chemicals, blabla...
Katara's face warped into a bit of a frown.
"If you must know, Sokka," she touchily informed, her volume lowered. "Yes, it is."
Sokka cringed and slapped himself in the forehead.
"Of course!" he proclaimed in a profound whisper, stroking the hairs on his chin. "How could my masterful detective skills have neglected this obvious explanation?"
"Anyway," Katara interjected, cutting his process off. "Toph really is dealing with a lot right now and she's not feeling well on top of it. I think maybe tonight we should give her some space if that's what she's saying she wants."It's hard to admit that, isn't it, Katara? But I think you may be right. Maybe she's been feeling suffocated by us?
"Maybe we should head back to Ba Sing Se soon, then?" Aang suggested. "There's no earth here, and I know it's been hard for Toph to do anything without help. You guys all know she hates that."
"Yea," Suki agreed gloomily.
"She hasn't been dealing with the cold very well, either," Sokka admitted.
"As nice as it is to have you here," Hakoda pointed out from outside their circle, "I would understand if you needed to leave sooner than planned. It's not as if we'd never see you again. Toph is a member of our family now, and we look after our family."
"Right," Aang agreed with a fierce nod.
"Then how about we'll leave the day after tomorrow?" Sokka proposed, pounding the side of his fist into his palm. "We can do whatever else we wanted to do here tomorrow, spend some more time with Dad and Gran-Gran, and head out the next morning."
"I think that sounds like a good idea," his sister supported.
"Whatever you guys think is best," Suki affirmed, pulling her fur-edged hood over her head as a chilly breeze swept over the village.
"I've gotten to do everything I wanted," Aang admitted, reflecting on his aerial ballet with Katara and his penguin-seal ride. Rushing through the bitter clouds, their breath misting in each other's faces, their bodies pressed together, Katara's serene smile in the afternoon sun...
"Then it's settled," Sokka consummated the matter. There was a hint of longing in his deep-thinking eyes, Aang noticed. He didn't want to leave so soon. He didn't really want to leave at all.
"I think I need a man's help getting this food ready!" Hakoda called with a laugh.
"That's my cue!" Sokka proudly announced, his eyes sudenly aglow with that all-too-familiar dreamy state of hunger, a wide grin plastered all over his face. He danced to the tune of meat all the way to the fire.
"Katara," Suki whispered cautiously.
"What is it?" Katara wondered curiously.
"Why is Toph so mad at me?" Suki asked discreetly, too quiet for Sokka or Hakoda to hear. Katara bit her lip, her eyes wandering away.OK, now this is suspicious. Why would Toph be mad at Suki? I guess she has been acting kind of negative toward Suki lately, huh?
"Do you think it's because she's just not used to you yet?" Aang theorized, keeping his voice down.Why are we being so quiet?
"That's what I've been thinking," Suki mused thoughtfully with a careful nod. "I mean, we've been getting along OK for a while, but she's so stressed out and upset about everything...She doesn't trust very easily, does she?"
"No," Katara moaned regrettably, wiping her nose with her sleeve and sniffing. She placed her palms on her hips and considered the situation. "But that is a good point, Aang...I mean, remember how she used to fight with us, too?"
"Especially you," Aang pointed out with a sly grin.
"Yea," Katara groaned, her expression melting into discouragement. "It's taken a long time for Toph and I to really get along."
"She's just got a lot of stuff going on," Aang explained to Suki. "She can be really harsh sometimes but...She's getting better. Just don't take it personally."
"Right, it's nothing you did wrong," Katara eased. Suki shook her head slowly, eyes distant and perplexed. "What is it?" Katara asked.
"It's weird...That's exactly what she told me," Suki iterated. "That it wasn't anything I did. But she doesn't want anything to do with me? What am I supposed to make of that?"
"Don't worry, Suki," Aang reassured with a pat on her arm. "We'll figure this out."
"I sure hope so," the distraught girl whimpered. "I feel like Toph and I share a lot in common, and we're supposed to be a family, but...-"
"It's like there's a wall there and she just won't let you in," Katara finished solemnly. "That's how she deals with it, Suki. It's nothing personal, OK?" Suki took a deep breath and nodded. "I promise, we'll figure everything out. It'll be fine."Yea, that's the spirit. We look after our family!
"Hey, Suki!" Sokka jeered from his position by the fire, "You better be hungry 'cuz damn this is gonna be good!" Suki's worry shed away and she eagerly made her way over. Aang took the opportunity to hug Katara for the sake of it, and they each let out a satisfied hum. Aang considered asking for the details of what, exactly, was going on, but decided Katara's judgment was probably best. If he needed to know, he'd find out.
"If I'd known that was gonna happen I wouldn't have left them alone," Aang sheepishly confessed. Katara giggled.
"It's not your fault, Dear!" She rolled her eyes, draping her thickly padded arms around his shoulders. "Goodness, Aang - you saved the world, I think you're excused for a while to not worry about everyone else so much!"Spirits, I love your smile.
Aang squirmed his arms around her waist with care. It was such a relieving feeling, being able to do this without concern, without fear, without doubt.
"I have to at least be allowed to be worried about you guys," he objected with a goofy grin. "You're my favorite people."
"Oh, OK," Katara patronized. "I guess that's allowed, then."
"You guess? Hey, I'm the Avatar, my rule is...law," he muttered awkwardly, in that way that made it clear he didn't actually believe it.
"Whoa, hey, there, don't go letting that 'Avatar' thing go to your head," Katara teased slyly, her eyes narrowing. She tucked his hood tightly over his head and nudged her rounded, squishy nose into his, rubbing back and forth gently. Their grips on each other tightened for a moment and their misty breaths were exchanged.
"Heyheyhey!" Sokka growled. They pulled their lips apart but they continued to beam at each other underneath their hoods. "Dad, are you seeing this? Does this not disturb you?" he shrieked in exaggeration.
"My daughter has won over the heart of the Avatar, my boy!" Hakoda roared. "I think I can stomach that!"