A/N: Closer and closer to the end. We finally get to explore a narrative element that's been going on for quite some time. I admit that it took me a while to narrow down how to format it into the story right, so there may be some discrepancies in earlier chapters - yet another reason to proofread and edit. Hope you guys like this chapter as it sets things up for the next one. The way I've written the past few chapters probably tipped some of you off. ;)
Paper lanterns bobbed and swayed from their tree branches in the warm breeze, lit by ethereal flames. The reflective pond around him rippled gently as he dug his toes into the soft soil beneath his feet.
"She doesn't know yet, does she?" Aang asked.
"No," replied the other, his nose twitching.
"But she is getting better, right?"
"Oh, much better. Indeed. I think she's about ready."
"You're going to let her fix things on her own?" Aang wondered, doubtful if this was the best approach.
From his lily pad a couple of feet away on the pond, the white-furred beast nodded his head sagely.
"She has to learn to deal with things like this through her own decisions. She must be able to control herself."
"Yea," Aang agreed, rubbing his hand thoughtfully across his shiny, bald head. "Well, if you think it's what's best for her, then...I guess we'll see how it goes."
"Toph is a broken girl, Aang," the long-eared creature explained. "She is learning to piece herself together, but she needs you and your friends or she will continue to be lost, just as she was before you showed up in her life."
"Right! I know," Aang quickly insisted, "W-we're here for her, I'll always be here for her, and I know my friends will, too. We're her family now."
"Good." The animal's pointed ears perked up slightly as he continued. "Soon my work will be done and it'll be up to her and her alone to make these decisions for herself."
"She'll do fine. I'm sure she will."
"I think you're right, Avatar Aang. We have many hopes for that girl and what she will do for the world as it rebuilds itself - we have similar hopes for the rest of you. If she has you and your family looking out for her, I'm sure she will turn out all right."
"Thanks for everything you've done for us, Yah Toi."
"You once helped me many years ago in another life. I'm just returning the favor in the small way that I can."
"It may seem small to you, but...it's a big deal to me - to us."
"I'm glad I could honor your request, Avatar Aang. But it seems your presence is being called for."
"Oh. Guess I'd better go, then."
Scritch! Scritch! Scritch!
Aang's short, fuzzy hair was soothing beneath her palms, but rubbing more fiercely didn't seem to be waking him up. It was still fun, though.
"Helloooooo," she called again. "C'mon, Aang, stop your mystic monk magic and come and eat dinner!"
"Haha, OK, OK!" he laughed out at last, his arms shooing hers away.
"There you are," Toph sighed out. "Geez, I've been sittin' here for like, five minutes trying to wake you up."
"Heh, I was meditating, Toph. I was kind of deep into it, I guess."
"What do you do when you're in the whole mumbo-jumbo state of mind, anyway?"
"I talk with the Spirit World," Aang explained in a sly tone. "It's very complicated stuff. I'm not sure you'd be able to handle it."
"Well, aren't you just fancy, then," Toph jeered, sticking her fist out over his head. She stomped, popping the ground beneath Aang up just enough to bonk her knuckle on his head as it reached her wrist before dropping him back down. He giggled, scuff-ed his head, and whirled around her in an instant with a tiptiptiptiptip before a gust of wind ripped across the lawn, tossing Toph's thick braid into her face. She spat hair out and carelessly chucked it behind her shoulder, running to the house's front steps and clambering inside to the enticing aromas of vegetable stew.
"Ohhh, man, smells so good," Sokka moaned, drool practically dripping off of each word.
"Of course it does," Toph declared, plopping herself into the only empty seat at the table. "I helped make it."
"Yea, she picked out the ingredients and helped me cook it," Katara explained.
Sokka snickered heartily and smacked his lips.
"Someone's tryin' to be a chef, eh?" He clearly found this amusing based on their previous conversation about cooking.
"How come we're eating so early?" Aang grumbled, still a bit groggy from his meditation, it seemed.
"We're going to the Jasmine Dragon together tonight, remember?" Suki reminded.
"Go ahead and eat, guys," Katara advised in a mumble. The clattering and slurping of dinnertime enveloped Toph in comfort as a warm bite of potatoes, celery, and onion journeyed down her throat. She swallowed a few huge bites and her stomach was filled with the sam optimism that was flowing through her brain.
"Drums," Sokka whispered to himself incredulously. "Sit-on-the-ground, smack-your-hand-on-skin drums...I'm having a hard time seein' it."
"You're gonna have a hard time hearing it, then," Toph informed with smug satisfaction before chowing down some more.
"I think it'll be nice to see Zuko relaxed enough where he could actually do something like play music," Katara pointed out.
"It's gonna be good to see him again," Aang merrily concluded.
"I gotta admit," muttered Sokka between bites. "It was nice having someone around who properly understood how to be pessimistic."
"Hey, he's gotten a lot better," Katara assured. "You're less of a downer than you used to be, too."
Toph patted her full stomach, the hollow sounds of a spoon against wood signaling that her food was gone.
"What? No way," Sokka disagreed with his sister. "I've got a...to keep...stayonryjsdwo...wodsaifdygu..."What the? What's going on?
Everything seemed to be slowing down, quieting, shifting away. Toph's head felt heavy, her arms like lead. Her face sagged down to the table, resting on her folded arms.
Whooooaaa. What...?It's all right. Don't worry.I just passed out. I think I should be worried.You're tired. Your body and mind have been worn out over the past few days.I was feeling just fine a minute ago...Well, yes. I admit, I may have nudged you off. A gentle push.Huh? What are you talking about?Toph, I've come to say farewell.Uhhh...I've been keeping watch over you for a while, and I think you're finally ready.Wh-? I don't...What's going on?You think you've been talking to yourself this whole time?Are you telling me you're not me?Haha! Of course not!But-! I-I thought you were, like...my conscience, or-or something!I suppose in a way I was.How come you were so mean some times?Because you're mean to yourself. I had to fit in or you might not have listened to me.Wh-? B-but...Who the hell are you then?My name is Yah Toi. I come from the Spirit World.Ohhhh, no. I'm going crazy now.As far as I can tell, you're perfectly sane, Toph, you've just been...a bit confused lately.Like right now.Well, yes, I suppose so.
It was strange. This...voice...it was different than her own. Somehow. It had totally been her own voice before. Right? It must have changed something. Had she been getting told off by some stupid ghost or something this whole time?
I know you're somewhat upset by this, Toph.Damned right, I am! What the hell? Who gave you the right to go in my head?You did.When did I do that?You let me in because you wanted guidance. You've had so much trouble listening to what others say...Yes, I know, OK? But I've gotten better!You most certainly have. But there were times when you needed some prodding to get you along your way.So you're my magical babysitter or some crap.Don't look at it like that.That's what it is.I had to act like I was you or else you wouldn't have listened to me.So you lied.Call it whatever you want, Toph. I've been here to help you. Do you deny that?...I guess...not.You've come such a long way in a short period of time. You see it, don't you?Yes. I do. I'm...sorry. I understand. I get it.What do you 'get?'Everything you were trying to tell me. About not trying so hard to look tough, to let my friends help me. To try and help them.You understand why these things are so valuable now, don't you?Yea, of course! I'm not stupid.I have faith that you are ready.Ready? For what?Looking out for yourself.
The voice was fading away now, growing quieter with each word.
Wh-whoa, wait! Yah...Yah-whatsit! Whoever you are! Wait!You don't need me anymore, Toph. You need them. You understand that now.I-I'm not sure I can do it without you!You can, Toph. I know you can. They know you can. You need to learn to believe in yourself.I-I do! I always do!You believe in your outside strength. But now you need to learn to believe in your inside strength.OK! Yea, I-I can learn!I know you can...Toph. But that-...Toph? -is not something-...Toph, you there? -that can be taught...
"Grubblewhimma?" Mm. Drool. All over the table. And in my face. Awesome.
"Hey," Sokka's voice called, his hand pressed into her shoulder. As she regained consciousness, his heartbeat rang clear through his hand, shooting through her shoulder. It was a bit quickened. He was nervous.
"Mmm?" she managed to hum out, her neck not yet strong enough to lift her head up.
"You all right, there?" Paft paft, he gently tapped her back with her palm.
"Urgh," she huffed out. She pushed energy into her arms, out through her clumsy hands, willing arms to press her head up.
Come on, let's do this...Face. Off. Table!
The power to move slowly swept across her like a burning flame on paper, and her dazed head sagged over her chest as her body forced itself upright. Mind throbbing, mouth drizzled with drool, Toph grunted irritably.
I don't ever wanna go to the Spirit World again. I think I'm allergic. To Spirits. Or something.
She drearily wiped her sleeve across her face, then spread the gobs of saliva across her pant legs. With a huff, she tossed her bangs around, glad that they were dry, at least.
"You passed out there," Sokka observed. "Um, yea. That was kinda weird. You OK?"
"Fine," Toph grumbled, hand clamped around her forehead as her brain continued to heavily pulse against her skull.
"Aang said you were, like...meditating?"
"I was?" Duh. You were talking with a Spirit. From the Spirit World? See? I can put myself in my own place.
"Yea. You were not waking up. It was pretty amusing, actually." The way he said it made it seem like something disrespectful had happened while she had been out. Like they drew on her face. Or something.
"What did you do?"
"Wh-? Nothin'!" Sokka burst out with forced innocence. "Seriously."
"What were you thinking of doing?"
"Heh, drawing on your face." Knew it.
"Where's everybody else?" Toph wondered, suddenly noticing the lack of noise in the house.
"Oh, well...I, uh..." Sokka sighed, griff, griff, ruffling his chin hairs. "I told everybody they should head out to the tea party."
A moment of awkward silence. They both knew what was about to happen.
"It's just that," Sokka muttered, his tone picking up speed, "with everything that happened, and stuff, I just thought maybe we should talk about it, 'cuz it's been a couple days now, and it's been, like, super awkward, and I thought now might be a good time...-?"
"Yea. Now's a good time."