A/N: Longer than usual. This chapter more specifically tackles the core issue in this tale (family), and I really want to focus on Toph's relationships with each of the three other main characters and explore them, so this is the first foray into that.
Swssssshhhhhh...Glub. Glub. Glub.
Toph couldn't feel or hear straight, she was so angry. She kept tapping her feet into the grass to pick up a constant stream of vibrations from everything around her just to give her mind something to do besides what it kept getting pulled into doing. There was a squirrel-raccoon eating on a tree about thirty feet behind her. A frog was croaking alongside the river ten feet ahead to the left. A cricket was beginning its nighttime song directly to her right. Aang was a couple of feet in front of her - holy crap where the hell did he come from?
"Wah!" she cried out in surprise, throwing up her hands instinctively. "Wh-what are you doing here, Twinkletoes? Why'd you have to sneak up on me like that?"
Thump. Aang sat himself in the grass directly before her, his legs crossed.
"Hey, Toph," he greeted, his words soaked with melancholy. Oh, great. Just what she needed: a heart-to-heart. Gag. "Sorry, air bending was the quickest way to find you."
"I'll let it slide," she dismissed, leaning back on her palms. Suddenly she was preoccupied with what she might look like. Her hair felt all tangled and her eyes stung.Whatever. I don't even care at this point.
"Listen," Aang abruptly began. "I don't want to bother you if you think some time alone is what you need. But I want to talk with you...if you're up for it."
He was pretty serious. All of this 'saving the world' stuff had really changed him. He seemed so much older and stronger than the wimpy kid she had once taught earthbending to. Maybe gag wasn't how she was feeling about this. She wasn't sure at this point.
"I'm listening," she groaned.
She could feel his palms planted on his bended knees, his heart relaxed and calm.
"Did anyone ever tell you how I ended up frozen in ice in the first place?" he checked.
Toph shrugged with apathy, blowing damp bangs off of her face.
"I ran away from home," Aang explained in a blunt manner she wasn't accustomed to. "My family, the monks...they were going to trap me, keep me from doing what I wanted to do, from being with who I wanted to be with. So I ran away."
Toph could feel a lump forming in her throat as she dwelt on the thought of running away - something she was very good at.
"I took Appa and we tried to leave everything behind, but...we were caught in a storm and got lost in the sea. I-I don't know how it happened, but I think I entered the Avatar State and froze myself in order to prevent us from dying."
Toph was now hugging her legs, chin resting on her knees lazily.
"Pff," she spat. "So what? Why are you telling me this?"
Aang sighed at her aggressive attitude. He was hoping that her emotionally unstable condition would have brought about some benefit and openness to support.
"I left my family behind," he clarified, "I ran because I felt like they weren't letting me be true to who I really was, but only what they saw me as. Just like what you just said back there."
That's exactly how I felt. That's exactly what I did.
Toph sighed and laid down on her back, drowning out her thoughts a bit and listening to the world around her again.
"You tryin' to say you know how I'm feeling?"
"Yes," Aang confidently confirmed. "I do. Maybe not exactly. But I-"
"Well, you don't, Twinkletoes, so stop pretending like you do!"
She could feel his teeth gnashing together in his mouth. That ought to have pissed him off a bit. Maybe he'd take off and give her some peace.
"Why do you always do this?" he spat in frustration.
"If you don't like it, leave me alone!"
They both aggressively faced each other, Aang glaring down at her. Toph's eyes of course weren't focused on Aang, but her anger wasn't focused on him, either.
"Toph, you can't let your feelings keep you trapped," Aang insisted. She could tell by his breathing that he was upset but trying to remain calm. Sitting back up, she shoved her eyebrows down at him.
"I'll do whatever I-"
"What you want and what's best for you aren't always the same thing," Aang insisted. "You're all mad because your parents are controlling. Well, guess what? They're still alive. At least you knew your parents at all. You lost a lot when you left home but you didn't have much to lose, the way you keep everything out. I lost everything and everyone, except...except Appa."
Now her own teeth were grinding. Who did he think he was, trying to win over her pity?
"But I found a new family, Toph. And instead of staying angry and upset over everything I lost...Instead of letting myself mope around and be all angry all of the time, I held onto the people who found me and I protected them because I love them."
Toph sighed and let her head flop to the side, doing her best to look disinterested.
"You're not a monk, Toph," Aang observed. "Monks can detach themselves from the world. I tried. Even I couldn't really do it completely. Not for very long, at least. But you can't detach yourself from anything, you just hide from it and push it away."
That lump in her throat from earlier came back. She could feel her eyes starting to bulge. What the hell? She wasn't even upset. She didn't care what he had to say. Why did she feel like crying?
She found her shoulder warmed by his hand as he scooted beside her.
"You have to stop pretending, Toph. You have to take your own advice." Her face molded into confusion, though her head was turned away from him.
What are you getting at, Twinkletoes?
"Remember when you were teaching me earth bending? You threw everything at me, and said I had to stand my ground. Well, you're doing the opposite right now."
It was like he was grabbing at her soul and twisting it around, forcing it to face the truth her mind was convincing it to ignore.
"Every time you're upset and you run away, or...or hide in your stone tent, or whatever...You're not standing your ground, Toph. You're not following your own teaching."
She could feel her breathing escalate and her heartbeat pick up. Her eyes burned, ready to explode.
"Your family doesn't want you," Aang solemnly concluded. "But we do. I do. You're the closest thing I have to a sister now, Toph. Doesn't that mean anything? Isn't that worth standing your gr-?"
She'd plunged into his side, wrapping her arms around him. She released the gates and let the water trickle from her eyes. It was like all of the tears she had wanted to cry back when he'd been reading that letter were all coming out now. She couldn't stand the pounding from everything inside, trying to escape.
"OK! Fine," she whimpered, trying to sound tough and failing miserably. "I-I get it, Tw-Twinkletoes..." She was sniffling uncontrollably but for once not letting herself get angry about it. She felt invigorated by the pressure he applied in returning her hug and she held tightly, not wanting the sensation to end. This feeling of being enveloped by affection was energizing. They had their group hugs and that was all well and good, but these individual ones meant so much more to her. It was the difference between 'I'm hugging the group and you're part of it' and 'I'm hugging you.' Like she was worth more than what she could bend with her mind and body.
"It's all right," Aang assured as he gave her a pat on the head through her mess of damp hair. "I know it's hard. But you've had us this whole time, and we're not going anywhere."
"Good," she choked out, almost in a laugh. Her heart was rampaging through her body like a angry, drunken Godzilla. She had no idea what building would get knocked down next.
She just wanted to remain in this bunker of comfort and assurance. At least in this place, she knew she'd come out all right, no matter what happened out there. Her relief wasn't anything specifically accredited to Aang so much as being wrapped in a blanket of security and affection. A tent of stone and dirt was very different than flesh and warmth and spirit. Her hands had tightened, braced as her soul was wrecked and ravaged by confusion and helplessness and anger. She didn't know how much time passed in this place of refuge - it could've been a few seconds or a few minutes - but Aang said not a word. He was there, and that was all she needed in that moment. Aang, Katara, Sokka...Had she really had them this whole time, like this? Had the blindness in her eyes been leaking into other places, as well?
Aang had helped her make up her mind: she was going to stand her ground and practice what she preached. If it required looking like a damned wimp but it felt as refreshing as this, then it was worth it.
"You all right?"
"Huh?" She was brought back to reality. Her grip was loose, her face was sticky and not streaming. Aang chuckled.
"You weren't fallin' asleep on me, were ya?"
"N-no," she sputtered. She certainly felt like she had just woken up, though. That damned flushed feeling had overtaken her face at some point, but it wasn't like the other times. Those were of embarrassment of desires or thoughts, but this was an aftereffect of trauma. She sniffed gunk through her damp nostrils and palmed her eyes drearily.
"I was...I just..."
Aang released her and slapped her on the arm affectionately.
"I know," he assured with a laugh. "It's like a volcano just erupted in your brain, right?"
"Yea," Toph agreed, confused at how well his statement fit her circumstance. "And my stomach," she groaned, grasping at her twisted innards.
"Then you have kind of an idea of what it's like to be in the Avatar State."
Toph was having trouble comprehending around that idea, but couldn't deny that there was a lot of sense to it.
"I know it's part of what makes you you," Aang observed, "But you don't have to act all tough and cool all of the time. Some times standing your ground means letting others prevent you from falling."
Toph sighed a deep, exhausted sigh, her face wearing its rare 'thoughtful' mask. She of course didn't know how odd it looked to Aang, but it sure felt strange wearing it.
"I thought I was supposed to be the teacher here," she mumbled with a smirk, wiping her nose.
"Maybe when it comes to earthbending," Aang admitted. "But come on - I'm the Avatar." She could tell he was puffing his chest out with satirical pride. "I think you can trust me with this deep spiritual stuff." He nudged her with his elbow, leaning in. "Unless you've left your body and explored the meaning of the cosmos recently."
She giggled, returning to an almost fetal like position of relaxation, feet planted firmly in the grass. She scrunched her toes in, clutching the cold, damp blades. The sounds and vibrations of the world around her had sprung back upon her.
She pulled up her arm and made to slam Aang in the shoulder, but just before she did, something begged her to stop. She dropped her hand down and wrapped it back around her knee.
"I'm sorry, Aang," she muttered, her words drizzled with melancholy.
"For what?" he wondered, genuinely confused. He thought there was no need for an apology, as he had felt her anger and pain ooze out of her body like a virus being purged. Obviously not entirely, but he knew any malicious acts she demonstrated were due in part to this hurt and confusion and frustration, in the same way he'd hurt Katara and Sokka inadvertently during their time together.
Toph huffed, wiping tear-dampened strands of hair from her face.Why do you gotta to make this so difficult, Twinkletoes? Couldn't it just be 'I'm sorry' and 'It's OK?'
"I-I don't know," she grumbled with a shrug. "I'm sorry for being such a jerk sometimes, I guess."
"Oh, that," Aang dismissed. She could sense she was being mocked somehow. She couldn't be sure, but she tapped her feet, and it felt like his mouth was shaped into a huge grin.
"What?" she spat.
She cocked her brow at him and tried to look angry, playfully slamming her fist into the ground and toppling the earth beneath him to throw him off balance.
"Geez, Twinkletoes," she snickered. "I'm trying to be all touchy-feely and junk here and you're just..." She sighed in exasperation and threw her arms down, shaking her head slowly. She felt Aang's lungs pause, as if he was holding his breath.
"Taking it for granite?" Aang suddenly burst out. He gasped in a laugh.
"Whhhhow. Really? That was...Wow. Ya saved that one for a while, didn't ya?"
The two enjoyed a moment of mutual appreciation before the strings that had recently hooked themselves into Toph's heart tugged once more.
"But seriously," she muttered, "You think I'm...like a sister?"
"Of course," Aang replied, like it was nothing.
A sister, huh? Toph didn't know exactly all that this entailed. Katara was Sokka's sister...Being a sister seemed pretty damn difficult. Then again, she couldn't deny that she had grown to wish she had a brother or a sister of her own. And here Aang was, just handing out this title to her like it was nothing. But the way he said it made it sound like it was everything.
"Well, why wouldn't I?" Aang asked rhetorically. "After everything we've been through, right? I told you, the Bei Fong family may not need you anymore, but we do."
Toph dug her toes into the grass again, subtly bending the earth below to envelope her feet as she pondered his words. The roots of the grass tickled her skin.
"Huh," she said aloud in observation. "I guess...I'm not a Bei Fong anymore, huh? Now I know how Zuko must've felt when his family disowned him."
"Zuko had his uncle, and you have us."
Toph nodded to herself thoughtfully, agreeing with his point. She twisted her ankles around, rotating the soil around her feet. She wasn't a Bei Fong anymore. It was official. She'd been disowned. But she'd already been adopted before she had even noticed. And that wasn't so bad, she decided. A thought struck her like a bolt of lightning.
"Whoa, wait!" she started, balling her fists triumphantly.
"What is it?"
"So, if I'm your sister, then that means you're my brother. Right?" Her words were racing with excitement, like a river nearing a waterfall.
"Uh, yea," Aang slowly replied, his tone clearly illustrating his perplexation. "I guess."
"That's so cool."
"Uh, thanks," Aang muttered. "But why's that so cool?"
"Uhhh, duh? It means I can tell people my little bro saved the freakin' world. That makes me look pretty awesome."
She pounded her feet on the ground a few times with a playfully mischievous smile. Based on Aang's lack of reaction, she decided to explain.
"OK, OK, Twinkletoes. Let me get it through that bald head. Think about it. If you're the annoying little brother that saved the world and I'm automatically cooler than you, how awesome does that-"
"What?" Aang interjected. "Where do you get-"
"I'm your big sister now, right? That makes me cooler than you. Automatically." She jabbed a proud thumb into her chest and gave Aang a taunting, toothy smile.
Tip. Tip. Aang stepped up to his feet. She could feel him towering over her casual sitting stance.
"Then I guess I'll just have to live up to being an annoying little brother, huh?"
"I guess you wi-"
She felt her entire body getting attacked at all angles. Instinctively, she pounded her fists into the ground and created a dome of rock around her. In her own small, quiet cave for one body, she palmed the ground, frantically trying to find the source of the attack. No one was there. Aang had vanished. Before she could even process the idea of panic or confusion, her shell of rocks came collapsing around her, instantly ground into dirt. She sputtered and choked on it, then flung her hand out, dispelling all of the soil from her body.
"Aang, you little jerk!" she growled, chuckling. "Ohhh, lookit you," she mocked. "You can bend all the elements. Let's scare the hell out of the blind girl! The blind girl who can crush a man with her fingers."
"Maybe," Aang called out. He was above her, to her left, maybe ten feet away. Suddenly, she felt his hand tug on her hair, which she suddenly realized was rather out of sorts, likely from the gusts of wind moments before. "But how cool are you when you look like a boar-q-pine?"
She jumped to her feet and whipped her arms around, shooting a barrage of pebbles in the direction his voice had come from. She of course was just playing and didn't want to crush the kid, though he had become such a force to be reckoned with she wasn't as sure as she once was if she even could.
That stupid little stick of his. She couldn't hit him while he was floating around.
A sharp pain struck her in the forehead. Damnit, that had been one of her own pebbles. She'd let her guard down. Her carelessness must have been a result of her shaken state of mind.
"Love you, Big Sis!" Aang teased with a hearty laugh as he sailed away, fleeing from her fury.
She didn't have it in her to even bother pursuing him. She latched her hands behind her back and paced along the riverside, making her way back to camp. Aang's words, 'Love you, Big Sis,' continued to echo in her head. She knew he had been joking when he had said it but she knew it was true nonetheless. She had never really thought of him as a brother, but since he had brought the idea to her attention she rather enjoyed the notion. The seed had been planted months ago and had been getting watered and cared for, she just had neglected to notice it until now. She found herself consequently pondering the idea of Sokka and Katara as older siblings, but couldn't quite click those pieces together just right. Katara felt too much like a mom, and Sokka...well, he was Sokka. Just because Katara put up with him didn't mean Toph was willing to.
The boar-q-pine-haired girl in the swimsuit pensively took her time heading downstream, her mind turned inside out.
Swssssshhhhhh...Glub. Glub. Glub.