"That's what this has been all about?" Suki groaned, rolling her head around in contemplation.
"I'm really sorry," Sokka winced. "If I'd known...-"If I'd known, what would have I done?
"No, Sweetie, it's fine," came his much-desired assurance. "I'm not upset - I mean, I am upset," she clarified. "But I'm not mad, OK? Not at you."
Sokka puffed out a sigh of relief as she gave him a sympathetic smile.
"Are you mad at...Toph?" Sokka wondered with a meek shrug.
"Um, w-well, yes," Suki replied, gaining her bearings. She seemed almost guilty at first but composed herself. "It's not the end of the world, but...She should know better than to do something like that, don't you think?"
His head drooped and he nodded disparagingly.Yea, you're right, Suki. I have no idea what was going through her head. Was I leading her on...or something?
"Do you think," he wondered seriously, wrapping up a sack of rations, "that this is my fault?"
"Sokka," Suki scolded, "How is this your fault at all?"
"I don't know," he puffed out in exasperation, slinging the sack around his shoulder. Dang. Heavier than he thought. "Do you think maybe I...acted in any way that made her think...-?" He stared at her with deep concern. Suki shrugged and shook her head hurriedly.
"I didn't think so," she decided. "The way you've always talked about her made her sound like a little sister."
"Th-that's because she...-" Sokka rubbed his neck and rolled his head around contemplatively. "She is."In some ways she understands me better than my real sister does.
"Then I guess she's been interpreting things the wrong way," Suki deduced. "At least it explains what her problem's been with me," she grumbled with a hint of bitter frustration, but Sokka knew she was ultimately relieved. Suki had been afraid it was something personal against her, but all of this ruled that out.
"I just don't know what to do about this," Sokka groaned.Man, I really really don't need any of this right now..."But I need you to know, Suki, this doesn't change anything between us. You know that, right?" Please tell me you know that.
"Of course, Sweetie." Suki grabbed Sokka's hand and squeezed tightly. He leaned in to give her a kiss but she leaned back, instead pulling him into a hug.Well...I'll take what I can get right now.
"What we need to work out," Suki assured, "is between us. Toph has nothing to do with it. I know."
"OK." Sokka sighed through his nose, bending his neck and pressing his chin into her shoulder before they split apart.
"Guys?" It was Aang. "Oh, there you are." He shivered, exhaling a cloud of mist and rubbing his hands together. "It's pretty windy out there," he observed. "You ready to go?"
"We are," Suki replied with a nod, lifting her backpack over her shoulders.
"Good to go."Good as I'll ever be, anyway.
Minutes later, the group was lined up in the middle of the village, bidding their farewells to the various residents. It was exhausting for Sokka, since he knew everyone - he had to give each family a proper interaction despite his feelings of apathy in that moment. In his mind, it served as practice for what he'd have to do some day - act like everything was fine even when it wasn't for the sake of the people.
"You keep an eye on everyone, Dearie."
"I will, Gran-Gran. You, too, eh?" He smirked as he hugged the feeble-bodied, strong-willed woman.
Sokka at last turned to his father who beamed down at him with pride.
"C'mere, Son," he grunted with a laugh, crushing Sokka in his arms. Sokka slammed his hands into the man's back as hard as he could. "I'm sorry for the time I was gone," Hakoda whispered. "But I'm so proud of the man and woman you and your sister have become while I was away."Thank you. That means a lot. We'll make up the time we lost. At least, I will.
"I love you, Dad," he expressed with a straightforward tenderness, tone quieted.
"As do I love you, Sokka," his dad reciprocated with a lowered voice. A hard smack on his shoulder and Sokka was sent off. "Now listen to Sokka here, everyone," Hakoda advised with a farewell wave as they boarded their steed. "He's in charge!"
"Then we're all doomed," Toph huffed from her edge of the saddle. It was the first thing Sokka had heard her say all day. His confidence in the day's outlook had been inflated gradually, but her cold words caused a leak. Suki obviously noticed this, as she rubbed his arm with her gloved hand before easing him to his perch on Appa's head.
He gripped the reigns tightly, preparing himself for the pain of leaving his family, acknowledging that he was still taking an important piece of them with him.
I'm in charge. If I'm going to tell people I'm a man, I need to start acting like one. I'm confused, we're all confused...Toph's being a downright stubborn jerk - just like I'd expect - but I can't let that setback drag everyone else down. We need to get back home, first and foremost. We can figure all of this out from there.
Toph likes Sokka? Wow. I can't believe I didn't figure it out before. How could I be so stupid?
"Aang?"Huh? Oh, Katara. Of course.
Aang had been meandering in deep thought, border-lining meditation, as he observed how quiet and uncomfortable everyone was acting. It was hard for him to fully conceptualize the idea that Toph had done to Sokka what he had to Katara - that she felt the same way he did. Just the idea of Toph feeling that way toward anyone was an alien thought to him, though he had to admit it was unfair to assume she wouldn't or couldn't.
How did I not notice something like this the whole time?
"What's up?" he asked, his attention on her radiant face in the clouded morning light.
"Are you OK?" she wondered with an unsure gaze.
"Of course," Aang persuaded, though he immediately second-guessed himself. "I mean, everyone's acting weird, but..." He didn't try to say it quietly - that was pretty much pointless at the moment. Everyone would be able to hear, anyway, and part of him didn't mind them knowing how strangely dull they were acting.
"I know," Katara grumbled - clearly she was thinking the same thing. They glanced at the front of Appa, where Sokka calmly manned the beast, his back to them. Suki was leaning against the front of the saddle, a chattering Momo poking his head out from her hood, latched around her neck. On the opposing side, facing Appa's rhythmically bobbing tail, Toph sat, tucked in a ball, motionless.
"Did you finish what you made for Toph?" Katara wondered in a whisper.Uh, Katara? She can probably still hear you...Come to think of it, where'd I put-Ah! There it is.
He fished it from his coat's right pocket and presented it to her with care. It was an anklet made of twine wrapped through and around smoothed out shards of bone of various random shapes. When Aang had found out Katara was making Toph a necklace, he realized that she'd have a bracelet and a necklace and wanted to make something different. Suki had suggested an anklet since Toph loved being barefoot and had spent a good deal of time helping him create the surprisingly intricate trinket. In the same way his new bone necklace represented his ties to Katara and Sokka's family, so, too, would this for Toph.
"Hey, Toph," Aang called excitedly, eager to present it to her. There was no response - not even an acknowledgment. Aang's heart sunk as he recognized just how solid a wall she had built up this time. It was going to be a tough one to crack, but they'd find a way. He exchanged discouraged glances with Katara but gave her a nod and floated himself over to her side. Her eyes weren't visible beneath her hood and her loose bangs.
"Hey," he repeated, giving her a gentle nudge in the side. She wobbled at his gesture but remained unfazed otherwise, hands gripping at her shins as if she were struggling to hold on to her own spirit. "Um..." Aang stared at his offering and back at the mentally wounded girl. "I, uh...I made this for you," he explained, feeling his nervousness squeeze at his throat. He ignored it and forced his way into further conversation, placing the item on one of her knees. She snorted at him like a newt-dog, budging not an inch.Wow, weird. There's gotta be some way to get you to stop being all mopey...
Aang's mind raced with ideas. He slowly moved his hand over Toph's knee and carefully removed the anklet. He cocked his head to the side, peering into her face. Her bottom lip was puckered out and her eyes were slammed shut tight.Yikes. She's super cranky. Think, Aang. You found a way to defeat Ozai without killing him...This should be easy.
And then the idea hit him. A bit..unorthodox, but he was sure it'd work. He scrambled back over to Katara and handed her the anklet. Her despondent glance was replied with a shrug as Aang bit his lip.I can't tell her because Toph will hear...Hm...
"Hey, Katara," he muttered, his eyes darting to the grouchy girl to his left.
"Mm?" she hummed with an intent gaze. He was fidgeting with his hands, fingers twiddling together like spider legs.
"Uh-ummm...I'm gonna try something. Just...don't freak out, OK?"
Katara's eyebrows twisted to express her confusion, but before she could speak, Aang had grabbed his staff and was marching Toph's way.OK...Gonna have to nail this.
He managed to pull it off in one fell swoop, an elegant motion that involved him airbending Toph into the air just far enough so he could wedge his body underneath hers below the glider and launch them both off the side of Appa's back.
As they were propelled through the chilly air, a horrified shriek exploded from Toph's mouth, nearly deafening Aang.Whoa. She screamed. Like a girl scream. Haha, weird.
His chest was crushed by Toph's chubby hands, her arms wound tight around him as she squirmed and scrambled to find a stable position on his back.
"Hey, it's OK," he choked out through the pressure, a giggle finding its way out after.
"What are you doing, Aang?" screeched the girl. She slapped his head, but squeaked when her lack of grip made her slip a bit. Aang chuckled and focused a gust of wind to boost her back up.
"I thought that since we couldn't go for a walk, I'd take you for a ride," he explained with a sneaky grin.
"Why would I wanna do that?" She was clearly not in agreement with this idea, but Aang felt it was for her own good.
"I couldn't figure how else to get you to talk."
There was a moment of awkward silence in which Aang felt his gut lurch. He'd gone to great lengths for a simple conversation.Please, please just talk to me.
"We can talk about whatever you want," Aang explained in a rush, not wanting to alienate the confused girl or put her on the spot.
"All right, OK!" Toph grunted irritably. "Geez...Kinda extreme just for a chat, don't ya think?"
"Extreme times call for extreme measures," Aang slyly retorted. Another huff from above. "So come on, Toph. What do you wanna talk about?"
Her arms tightened around his chest and an exhausted sigh drizzled out.
"I...did what you told me," she muttered resentfully.
"You went for it," Aang concluded, guilt squirming its way past his logic and into his core.
"Didn't end well," Toph added with sharp disdain.
Aang sighed out a remorseful, "I'm sorry."
"It figures," Toph groaned.
"Just not your week, huh?"
"Well, um...The good news is that you're super sneaky, huh?"Hm. That didn't come out right...
"You, uh...You're good at being, like...sneaky. I had no idea. About that thing."
"Pff. Yea, neither did he. Was that...supposed to be a compliment?"
"Psh. Thanks for the effort there, Aang."That wasn't an annoyed tone, that was a sarcastic-but-amused tone. Good.
"Are you gonna be all right?" Aang wondered. A delay, capped off with a deep breath.
"Probably," Toph grumbled. "I just don't wanna deal with this right now..."
"No one's making you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Toph retorted with defensive snark.
"Ummmm..." Aang fidgeted his grip on his glider. "I-I guess I'm saying that...you don't have to worry about this stuff right now. Ya know?"
"No," she flatly huffed. "No, I don't know."
"You could just try to ignore it for a while," Aang hurriedly explained, finding the words he was grasping for. "Take your mind off of things and don't think about it. Clear your head."
"Clear my head?"
"Exactly. That's what you have to do when you meditate - you have to try to...I dunno, not think about anything."
"Err...I don't think I understand," she muttered with a tinge of genuine curiosity.
"I'm not saying that's what you should do, exactly," clarified Aang, now fumbling to recover some kind of helpful advice. "But I think that you should find something that will help you forget about...stuff. At least for a while, until you're ready. Does that make sense?"
"Forget about stuff..." Toph murmured it thoughtfully, her mind obviously elsewhere. "Yeaaaa."Maybe I've got her attention?
"Like, when I meditate," Aang continued, "I do breathing exercises. You have to take really deep, slow breaths. You just keep focusing on the breathing, until that's the only thing on your mind. So you're just breathing in and out, and-"
"Blablabla, spiritual mumbo-jumbo, breathing. Whatever."Oooookay. So I guess it wasn't the meditation that had her interested...But that would probably help her out.
"Thanks for trying, though, Aang," she added, slapping his padded chest with a patronizing glove.Hm. How come she's not calling me Twinkletoes?
"So what should we do when we get back to Ba Sing Se?" Aang asked her, trying to place some control in her hands when she probably felt helpless.
"I dunno," she muttered, at a loss. "But I'm probably gonna need some time alone."
"You sure that's such a good idea?"
"I thought you were saying I should take my mind off things?"
"Y-yea, but, like, we could help you-"
"How am I supposed to take my mind off of how awkward everything is if I'm around everyone who's feeling awkward?"OK, yea. Good point. Nevermind."I'm not a baby, I'll deal with it," Toph punctuated her rhetorical question with some bitter regret.
"OK," came a plain acknowledgment. "Whatever you think will work." The wind howled as Aang arced their weight and rotated direction, heading back to his bison. Toph's arms crushed his chest as they tilted and he found himself hurting in her stead.
How would I feel if Katara had said 'no?' Pretty awful...Maybe even angry - for a while. She just needs time.
He recalled when she had insisted that she wasn't sure, and how difficult that had been. But knowing that that person was with someone else, that had to be hard. He couldn't tell if his efforts at getting her to talk had succeeded as Toph was silent once again for the rest of the day; but after their ride had ended, he'd passed her the anklet he'd made and she had accepted it, stuffing it in her coat's pocket without any thanks save for a weak smile before retreating to her spot by Appa's tail.
"I hear ya, Momo. Quite a mess, huh?" Sokka chuckled.
"What are you looking for?" Aang wondered, bat-lemur perched on his shoulder.
Sokka scratched his head, knelt over his sack with a perplexed look on his face. He looked up at Aang and replied, "Just unpacking."
"But it looks like you're looking for something," Aang pointed out, filled with suspicion.
"Its...-" Sokka shrugged and tossed his arm dismissively. "Nothing, I just need to make sure everything's here."Yea, he is definitely looking for something. Look at this mess, all of his stuff thrown out everywhere, unorganized...It's not like him.
Indeed, it was an odd site, all manner of things from hunting equipment to food to parchment sprawled across the kitchen table.
"Do you need help sorting everything out?" Suki's sympathetic voice inquired as she entered from the backyard.
"Oh, um," Sokka mumbled as she scratched at his shoulder. "Sure, yea."
"By the way," said Suki, handing Sokka a small glass bottle damp with traces of greenish liquid on the inside. "I found this out back - wasn't this yours?"
His face melted into despair as he cradled the bottle in his hands like a sick baby.
"Yes," he sniveled. "It's all gawwnnn..."
"Oh, I-I'm sorry," Suki stuttered. "I found it with some awful-smelling stuff in it so I dumped it and washed it out for you."
Sokka was clearly holding back his disappointment as best he could. In other words, he was on the verge of tears.
"How did it get back there?" he growled, eyes sharpened.
"I-I'm not sure, Sokka," Suki fumbled, confused at his sudden change in mood. "Was it important? I'm so sorry, I thought it was bad."
"No, it's OK," Sokka gasped out. "I'm better than this, anyway." He slapped the bottle onto the table and began pulling together fishing equipment. "I don't need it."
Aang stared at the empty container, pondering what had once been contained within it.
"Do you guys need my help?" he offered, his pet scrambling across his head, impatiently eying a small stash of berries laid out.
"We're fine," Suki insisted with a half-hearted smile, patting a dismayed Sokka on the back.
"All right. I'm gonna go out front and feed Appa."
"Go for it, Pal," Sokka grumbled in a childish whimper.
Aang airbended a wicker basket of cabbages he'd bought when they had returned and planted it on his head. Skittering outside, he reached the sleeping bison and grinned. The poor guy had collapsed as soon as they'd gotten back, but he needed some food in his system.
"Hey, Appa," Aang greeted loudly, placing the basket beneath his enormous nose. Appa's face wrinkled and his nose twitched and inhaled. Gradually, the beast's dull eyes opened and he lazily licked at the basket, toppling it over and reaping the green riches with hos slobbering tongue. Aang was startled when a gleeful giggle erupted from the bison's back.
"Sluuurrrpeee slurp! Haha."What in the-? Is that...?
A barefooted girl rolled down the side of the flying bison, black hair flopping around wildly, and crashed into the grass with a unsettling whack. She groaned, somehow still chuckling through it all, and struggled to her knees.
"Hooohooo, wow, fast." Somehow she managed to get onto her feet, wobbling, arms cast out to maintain balance.
"Toph?"What on earth is wrong with her?
"Twinkatwinks!" she snickered, a wide grin exploding onto her face, her eyelids bobbing up and down. "Heeee." She punched him in the chest, her face flushed red. "Nob'dy twinks like you twinks."
"Uhhh..."This is sooo creepy. It's like she's another person. Except she still hits me. That figures.
Toph leaned into Aang, going limp for a moment, and he caught her, flustered by how tightly she squeezed him upon regaining her footing. A squeaky hum slipped through her nose, unsettling him further. His body tingled and he could feel his face heating up.Yea, this is really weird...I don't know what's going on, but this isn't right.
Their embrace lasted entirely too long for his comfort given the way she was acting, so he cut it off by easing her by the shoulders off of him. Her pale eyes were blankly directed over his shoulder, a goofy smile on her face that was veiled in strands of black.
"Lil' Bro Bro," she muttered, reaching her arm to his head and rubbing his short hair around. "Fuzzzzz."
Aang recalled when Sokka had been under the influence of that strange plant juice he liked. It was as if Toph was...oh, right. Bottle. Funny-smelling stuff. Wonderful. Well, that explained it, at least. His thoughts were jarred when Toph's stubby hand groped at his face, then pinched his nostrils closed.
"Haaaa," Toph gasped, finding this to be entirely hilarious. Aang irritably plucked her fingers from his nose and sighed at her depleted inhibition.You did tell her to forget about all of her problems, Aang. Good job. Maybe this whole 'advice' thing is a bad idea 'cuz every time you give this girl advice she ends up doing something stupid.
"Aang? Toph?"Oh, it's Katara. Maybe she'll know what to do!
"K-Katara! Hi!" Aang was off guard in his greeting, giving Toph space to hunch over him, arm latched around his shoulder. She punched in the rib and he groaned, giving Katara a grouchy look that read 'help me, please.'
"How's everything going?" Katara bid them, setting her newly purchased basket of vegetables on the ground before them, wiping sweat from her forehead.
"Ahhh. SugarFuss!" Toph pushed herself off of Aang and marched forth, tripping over the wicker basket and smashing her face into the space between Katara's feet. Katara flinched at the sight and immediately knelt down, scooping Toph up and planting her back on wavering feet.
"Are you all right, Toph?" she demanded, suddenly concerned.
"Pfff!" Toph burst out, chuckling as she pointed a finger inaccurately in Katara's general direction. "Your face izall right!"
Katara's eyes darted to Aang, eagerly seeking an explanation. He shrugged and shook his head.
"I think maybe she's been drinking some of Sokka's funny juice," Aang theorized.
"Ohhhh no," Katara bemoaned, rubbing her forehead, one hand still clutching Toph's shoulder to keep the girl balanced. Her face deepened with thought for a moment before she frowned, rising to her feet.
"Whatcher sad 'bout, Sis?" Toph's slurred speech inquired, oddly solemn.
"It's nothing for you to worry about," Katara sweetly assured with a pat on the head. "You stay here with Aang, I'll be right back, OK?"
"Aangy," Toph chortled, covering her mouth as if it were about to burst.Come on, Katara, please don't leave me with her, she's creeping me out.
"Um. Yes," Katara muttered awkwardly with a lifted eyebrow, at a loss as to what to make of Toph. "Aangy," Katara echoed with a grin, staring at him empathetically. "I'm going to go figure out what's going on, you just keep an eye on her, OK?"
Ugh, I really don't wanna..."All right."
Toph stretched, yawned, and fell back on her bottom, rubbing her eyes.
"I'll be right back," Katara called, briskly entering the house.
"Owie," Toph growled, hunched over. Aang shuffled around and sat in front of her. Her left eye was squinted shut, her right hand squeezing her forehead. "Hurtz," she spewed lazily. Her words were drizzling out of her mouth like molasses.
"Um, I'm sorry," Aang mumbled, slapping her gently on the knee. She twitched at first, likely because she didn't feel it coming, but relaxed afterward. Her other arm dragged itself around her waist and she whimpered, rocking back and forth. Aang was at a loss as to what to do with her, and vowed right then and there that he would never drink cactus juice. Ever.
"Mm stoopid," Toph grumbled to herself, slapping her own face. "'Sall stoopid."
If anything, this was making it quite clear to him that his earthbending teacher was in fact just a scared little girl, angry and hurt and confused - just as he had been mere weeks before. Aang often distanced himself from Toph, intimidated by her attitude and the way she would demean him. He had grown to realize that much of this was for show, and moments like this solidified the idea into reality: she was lost. And he felt helpless in the face of it, for every time he tried to help he'd just mess it up and cause...well, this. This was his fault. He'd convinced her to try making a move, he'd told her to ignore her worries and take her mind off things. He wanted to assure himself that his backup plan had been helping all this time, but right now she was a drunken, rejected dirty pile of a girl.
Wait...Like, literally. She was surrounded by dirt. Sinking. Why was she sinking? Before Aang had realized what was going on, she had disappeared into the ground, the earth sealing itself up behind her.
"Forgetting time," he could hear her sing out from beneath the ground.
"Wh-? Toph! Where are you-?"
Aang panicked, bending the dirt apart to search for her. He could hear the earth below him rumble as Toph passed through it. As he dug, shoving his arms around to create a tunnel, the sound faded, the vibrations vanished. She had disappeared underground. Toph had just run away.