The creek's rippling sounds soothed Toph's mind. She found herself reflecting on the words Katara had bestowed upon her back at the South Pole. She pinned those words to her heart like a badge of honor.
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. Strength...Fortitude...Self-Respect...
Has myself been preventing myself from being true to...myself? Ouch. Think I burned my brain.Yea...Don't try so hard there, Honey. Don't wanna hurt yourself.This whole 'thinking deep' stuff is harder than I thought. How does Aang do it?Well, he gets some help. Being the Avatar doesn't hurt, either.Haha, yea, no kidding.
Toph wiggled her ankle over the edge of the creek bed, appreciating the clacklekattat of the bone anklet wrapped around it. She remembered how she had carelessly thrown away the gift Katara had made for her, and she yearned to have it back. Then she would feel complete - something from each of them.
Do you love them?Yes. I do.How do you know?Because I want them to be happy.And?And I'd do whatever I had to to make them happy.
Toph seriously considered this idea she had just decided was truth. Whatever she had to do...That could be a lot. It could mean losing things she cared about.
Do you love yourself?I'm...I don't know.You don't know?I thought I did. But now I'm not so sure.Yea. You used to think you were such hot stuff, didn't ya?I am hot stuff. I'm the world's greatest earth bender.Hm. Maybe. But does that make you happy?Not...really. No.If you love yourself, you'd want to make yourself happy, too.But do I deserve to be happy?Everyone who loves themselves deserves to be happy.I dunno...that sounds pretty stupid. Lord Ozai deserves to be happy?Ozai didn't love himself. He didn't really love anyone. Not even his own children.Oh. Right. Guess that makes sense.In order to truly love yourself you must be capable of love in the first place.Yea...
Looks like it's time for you to practice being this person you want to be.OK. I'll give it a try.
"Hey, Toph," the voice called again. "Yoohoo, anybody there?"
"Yea, I'm fine, Meatheh-! Um, I mean...I'm all right, Sokka."
"Ah. Thats...that's good." Thip thip thip. Pwomph. "So, uhhh, whatcha doin' out here?"
"Nothin'. Just thinking."Please don't be awkward. Please.
"Cool. Yea. Thinking. Gooooood stuff. Am I right?"Ugh. Well, at least he's trying.
"Yea. Good stuff?"
"OK. Well, uh...I'll leave you alone now."Already? You don't have to go right this second, I'm fine.
"Where are you going, Sokka?"
Toph's question was answered with a baffling array of fluttering statements strung together like random pieces on a shishkabob.
"Oh, ya know...here and there. To and fro. Hither and tither. Up and around. High and low. Inside and out. Near and far. Far and wide."
"I meant, what are you doing?" Toph burst out, cutting off his tirade of nonsense. A wide grin was all over her face and she knew that this had been his intention.
"Ohhhh," he sarcastically realized. "I'm just picking up some spices 'cuz we're sorely lacking in some important things."
"Oh." Toph nodded slowly, pushing herself onto her feet. She tugged on her hair, making sure the ponytail Jin had tied it into was still in tact. "Um...You want me to come with you?"
"Sure," Sokka immediately replied in a 'I wasn't expecting that but that's awesome' way.
Toph took a deep, shaky breath as she paced to his side, hands latched behind her back.
"What do you need more spices for?" she wondered, eager to swiftly divert the conversation away from anything awkward.
You're not ready to talk about everything, are you?No. Totally not.But you are going to eventually, right?Of course. Soon. I promise.Good girl.
"Oh, ya know," Sokka murmured, each thip he made a bit bouncier than normal. "A chef has to have the right tools to work with. An earthbender needs rocks, a chef needs ingredients."
"Right," Toph acknowledged. She was quickly slipping into that state of comfort that Sokka always brought her into. "So what are you trying to cook?"
"I want to experiment with some chicken," he explained, enthusiasm ringing out clearly. "Try something I haven't before. Variety is the spice of life."
"Variety, huh? What's that taste like? Is it spicy? Maybe lemony? Gonna put that on your chicken?"
"Ha-ha," came Sokka's dull laugh as he lightly smacked the back of Toph's head. It was gentler than usual, but she was OK with that.
"Hey, there he is!" cried out the voice of a stranger - a stranger to Toph, at least. "Sokka of the Water Tribe! How are you doing?"
"Hiya there, Mr. Sasho. What's going on?"
Based on his steps, Mr. Sasho was a skinny gentleman. Not too old, but definitely a lightweight.
"Ya know, my son was just telling me about a sword dueling contest that's coming up soon, and I thought to myself, 'Hakoda's boy should enter!' I've heard you've grown into quite the swordsman. Pupil under Piandao himself!"
"Haha, yea, I mean..." Sokka was flattered by the man's remark, Toph could tell. "Yea," he repeated, at a loss of how to respond to the compliment. "That sounds like it could be a good time, maybe I'll look into it."
"Definitely do that," Mr. Sasho advised, his voice fading away into the street crowd. "I know my son would love to square off with you some time!"
"Totally!" Sokka called back. "Huh," he muttered, skitch-ing at his fuzzy facial hair. "That'd be great." They proceeded on their quest for spices and Sokka considered the idea to himself. "But Steelface isn't really built for combat. I'd need a new sword."
"Steelface just won't cut it, eh?"
"Man, Toph, I think that cactus juice you drank must've broken your joke-maker."
"Hey, shut up."
I oughtta punch him.But you aren't going to punch him, are you?Nah. Not right now.
Toph was a bit worried that the subject of cactus juice would lead to some kind of scolding or reprimand for her stealing it and consuming it, but none came. Sokka just kept rolling forward, much to Toph's relief.
"Ya know, jokes are a lot like cooking."
"Yea. I mean, think about it: you have to make something good with the ingredients you're given. For example," he slapped her on the shoulder with the back of his wrist, "I've come up with so many wonderful recipes using the common ingredient of your lack of intelligence."
How about now? Can I punch him now?OK. Yea. He has it coming at this rate.
Whump."Hahaaaa." Skff skff. He rubbed at his shoulder.
Toph made a suggestion with an appreciative smile, knocking her wrist on her forehead.
"Maybe we should make a pie out of my lack of intelligence and your lack of manliness."
"Yea, it'd be a rhubarb pie," Sokka concluded with nonchalant confidence.
"Pssh! Oh, really?"
"Of course. Why, what were you thinking?"
"For some reason I was thinking of...like...chicken pie." She had intended for this to be another crack at his cowardice but it ended up having quite a different effect.
"OH. MY. GOODNESS." Sokka's voice had exploded like a barrel of gunpowder. "Toph, you're a genius!"
"Meat inside a pie. How have If never thought of this before? I mean, I'm supposed to be the smart one in this group."
"It's not like I invented it or something, it's-"
"No words." He grasped at her shoulders tightly, forcing her to stop. "We must treasure this moment of discovery."
"Haha, ooookay, then." Toph sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, absorbing some seconds of playful silence. Whap-whap! His hands rattled her shoulders and they were walking again.
"Lunch has been decided," Sokka announced.
The meal back home was a tasty chicken pot pie with some potatoes on the side. Toph had a sneaking suspicion the inclusion of potatoes had to do with them being her favorite food in the history of ever. She had been deliberately quiet throughout lunch but not so much as to imply that she was angry in any way as she had been intentionally acting merely a day before. The entire meal went by without anyone making any remarks as to her disappearance or her drunkenness or what had happened at the South Pole. In a way, it almost bothered Toph by the end of the meal. As everyone scurried around the house, tidying things up, washing out plates, and the like, Toph sat at the table, stroking Momo's back, the creature curled in her lap.
It's bothering you, isn't it?Yea. A lot.You just want to have it all out.I do.They're giving you what you said you wanted, you know.Huh?They're ignoring the problem - leaving you alone. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?Yea. But not anymore. It's annoying now. Like we're all...pretending.Running away from the problem.Exactly!Isn't that what you've always done, Toph?What are you talking about?The Runaway. Isn't that you? Always running away....Yea. That's...kind of been me. I guess.Run from your parents. Run from your friends. Run from your feelings.OK, OK. I get it. But I'm sick of running.I know you are. So what are you going to do about it?I'm going to stop. No more running. I'm gonna stand my ground.Promise?I promise.
"You OK?" Katara quietly asked amidst the rush of cleaning.
"Oh. Yea. Fine."
"Good to hear."
"Do you think we could maybe...I dunno, like, go for a walk, or something?"
"Y-yea! That's...That'd be great!" Katara's voice sounded as if Toph was removing a weight from her shoulders by asking the question. "As soon as we're done cleaning, OK?"
"Hawky!" Sokka squealed with delight.
"Oh, I missed you, too, Buddy! Didja bring mail back for me, pal?
"Caaw..." the crushed bird coughed out.
Fip. Sfff. Wahpple.
"Uh-huh. Mm-hm. Ahhhh."
"What's it say?" Aang demanded with childish wonder.
"It's an invitation to a...Er...A tea party?"
"Huh? A tea party?" Aang's excitement withered.
"It's a concert, Sokka," Suki explained. "At the Jasmine Dragon."
"Right. A party. With tea," reiterated the silly boy.
"Wait, a concert? With music?" Aang checked.
"Music does tend to be the main feature of a concert, Aang," Toph pointed out his lack of sense with a devilish grin.
"Who's playing?" Katara asked in earnest curiosity.
"Looks like...Lord Zuko," Sokka muttered, as if he had to re-read it to make sure what he was saying was correct. "Lord Zuko and Lady Jin, it says."
"Jin works at the shop," Toph explained, eager to illustrate her familiarity with the girl. "She plays guitar. Zuko plays drums."
"Zuko plays drums?" Aang was obviously impressed and taken aback.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Sokka scoffed.
"I believe it and I can't see it," Toph pointed out with a smirk. "But I guess that's 'cuz you listen to music. Seriously, are none of you guys aware of what a concert is or something?"
"It's tomorrow evening," Suki announced. "We should all go, and have some tea. Listen to their music, say hi to Zuko..."
"Yea, it's been a while," Katara agreed. "I hope he's doing OK."
"I'll bet he's doing great," Aang decided. "I think he's going to be just the leader the Fire Nation needs."
"Drums?" Sokka murmured dubiously.
"All right, let's finish cleaning, everyone," Katara proclaimed with a clap-clap!
"So you and Sokka haven't talked about it at all since it happened?" Katara said, huffing through her nostrils in disbelief.
"It's...my fault," Toph grumbled, her head bowed down. "I've been avoiding talking about it 'cuz I just needed some time."
"I understand," Katara assured, running her hand through Toph's greasy hair, combing dirt out of it with her fingers. "You know, it's very mature of you to admit that, Toph."
Don't patronize me, Katara. I'm not stupid.She's not patronizing you. Geez. Cool down. She's complimenting you.Oh...Hm. Maybe she is.Of course she is. You really need to let this defense mechanism go. The 'trying to look tough' thing.But I am tough!Yeeeeaaa...Like right there. Not helping.Bleck. This is hard.Indeed. It is. Now thank her.
"Thanks," Toph finally muttered with a humbled tone. This 'thanks' word was starting to feel natural. Toph shivered as a jolt of cold water splashed against her head. Her strands of hair all swayed and swerved as a bubble of water was bending its way around, cleansing her skull. When she adjusted to the temperature it became enticing and soothing, a liquid massage.
"So is that what you wanted to talk about?" Katara asked from behind.
"What's goin' on, Little Sis?" Toph felt a flame light up in her heart at the title bestowed on her.
"So, like, the other day?"
"When I threw your present? And...yelled at you...and hit you."
"And bit my ear?" Katara added with a snide tone.
"Heh," she squeaked shamefully. "Y-yea, that. I was just super angry and stuff. I'm sorry. Really."Thatta girl. That's the way.
The sloshing of water was unsettling for a moment, the only sound in Toph's ears until the cold fluid was wiped away with a sploooosh back into the trickling creek.
"I accept your apology," Katara said at last, her tone warm but rough, like a campfire.
Toph head was tickled some more as Katara carefully willed the water from her soaked strands, drying it instantly.
"I, uh..." Toph began, fidgeting her thumbs together impatiently. "I wanted you to know that...I'm glad you're around, Katara."
Katara's hands squeezed at her shoulders tenderly before moving to her hair and beginning to braid it into a single, thick braid like before.
"Hey, I'm glad you're around, too, Toph."
"I'm trying to change."
"I know. That's good. I'm proud of you. Just don't lose sight of who you really are. Don't pretend to be someone you're not. OK?"
In no time, Katara's work was done, and Toph was somehow overwhelmed, emotions welling up inside her.
"Here." Katara's fingers skipped around Toph's neck, wrapping her leather band around Toph's neck. The cool, smooth stone felt right at home between her collarbones. "There you are."
Aw, crap. There goes my face. All hot and everything.Hey, it's OK. Just let it go.But now I'm starting to cry...Urgh.Don't worry about it! Let it out. It's healthy.All right, OK, fine...
"Oh, Toph, Sweetie, what's wrong?" Katara cooed with a sympathetic giggle, gently nudging her friend to turn around and face her. Toph suddenly realized that these tears weren't the same as most of the ones she'd been shedding lately. She knew she was smiling. Her tears were of hope, of gratitude, of other things she couldn't define clearly but that were...good. Katara's hand dabbed at her face and Toph choked out a chuckle in spite of herself, letting her elder wipe at her eyes.
"I...I don't know where this is coming from," Toph confessed, her head shrinking into her shoulders. "I guess I just want you to know," she sniffed and sighed out peacefully, "that you're more of a mother than my mom ever was. You're the sister I never had. And I...-"
Say it. I know you can do it. It's what you're thinking.
"I love you, Katara."
There ya go. Doesn't that feel right?Yea. Actually, yea, it does.
"Oh, Toph," Katara laughed, pressing her knelt body into Toph's, arms clenching tight against the blind girl's back. "I love you, too."
The warmth that had swept across Toph's face flushed through her whole body and she hugged back with a peaceful sigh. This was what she had wanted from her parents all these years. Just this. And they couldn't even give her that. These people did. She was theirs now. All of her independence, all of her running and trying to be strong on her own seemed to be for naught when faced with this sense of belonging.
She's always going to be there for you, Toph. Are you always going to be there for Katara?She's my sister. Of course I will. I promise.