Toph nearly cringed at Suki's gasp. It was a gasp of delight but she abhorred it, anyway.
"Wow, that's so cute!"
Toph complacently stood still, hands on her hips, allowing Suki to run her hands along the thick braid that ran down her back. Katara had done a good job - it wasn't too tight but it certainly didn't feel like it'd be coming loose any time soon.
"Thanks," she mumbled, uninterested in Suki's opinion.
"Hey, Sokka, come over here," Suki called. "Come take a look at Toph's new hairdo Katara did."
Toph intently observed his approach, savoring each footstep.
thip thip. thip. Thip. Thip.
"Ohhh-hoho, hey!" Sokka greeted. "Looks like ya took my advice, huh?"
"Yea," Toph nodded in reply, struggling to contain her anxiety. "How does it look?"
"It looks good. Very sharp," Sokka decided, in very much the same way he'd comment on a blade. He ruffled her bangs around.
"Hawky likes it, too. See? That wasn't so bad, right?"
"Nah, it was fine," Toph replied calmly. He didn't seem all too taken aback as she had hoped. Maybe it didn't look as good as Katara and Aang had led her to believe? Like she'd know the difference, anyway...
"I think it looks very pretty, Toph," Suki complimented.
Well, whoop-dee-doo-dah-day. Didn't ask for your opinion, did I?
"We ready to hit the sky yet?" Aang called from the direction of the massive lump of Appa resting about twenty feet in front of them.
"I'm ready," Toph declared, jumping at the opportunity to stop focusing on Sokka's lack of being-impressed. She eagerly propped herself up with earth and hopped into Appa's saddle. "Where are we headed?"
"Makin' a stop back at Ba Sing Se," Sokka informed her, Thlumph, tossing his sack beside her.
What? Ba Sing Se? Didn't they just leave Ba Sing Se? Why were they going back there? Sokka must have noticed the confusion in her expression as he explained the reason.
"Yea, it's been a few days and we should probably stock up before we head out for the South Pole."
South Pole? Had she not been paying attention when this trip had been planned?
"W-whoa, wait up," she called, leaning over the edge of the saddle to talk down at Sokka. "Since when are we going to the South Pole?"
"Katara and I are thinking we might want to go see our dad," Sokka explained. "It's not like we're forcing anyone to go with us, we're stopping back home first. So if you're not up for it, you could just hang out there for a while."
Oh, pff. Yea, great. With who? If Sokka wanted to go, Suki would go. If Katara wanted to go, Aang would go, too. No, she wasn't going to just sit around by herself - though the fact that Sokka acted like her being on her own was perfectly chill was...kind of cool, in a way. It made her feel kind of grown up, if they thought she'd be OK by herself for a while.
"OK," she responded thoughtfully with a shrug. Maybe she would stay by herself? She'd have to make up her mind. Her mood-swinging over the past couple of days felt like a result of her company. She knew what Katara would say: 'You're in an emotional state right now. Loneliness is just going to make it worse.' Not to mention that the frozen glaciers of the home of the Water Tribe didn't sound all too appealing. Bleck, this whole situation meant that either way she'd have reason to be grouchy. What else was new?
As she pondered her options, she tried to relax herself for the long flight to come. They couldn't have been terribly far from Ba Sing Se by air. A day or two, tops.
"So have you gotten used to flying Team Avatar style?" Sokka asked Suki as the two settled in together.
"Not quite yet," she admitted. "But it's something I can definitely see happening."
"So can I," he whispered back in a tone quite out of Toph's range of familiarity. Their heartbeats spiked. It disgusted her to her core, yet she couldn't stop paying attention to it.
The world below vanished and they were encompassed by that all-too-familiar cloud of whrrrr and foooooo and sssshh all blended together. Sokka and Suki were whispering to each other, she knew they were, but the rushing air made it hard to make out the words, she'd have to really narrow it down in order to-
"Hey, Toph." Jeez! Oh, whew. When did Katara get there? Or had she been right there the whole time?
"You know, we don't have to go see our tribe right away. I know you're probably still feeling very confused and upset." A comforting hand pressed down on Toph's head, stroking her now clean hair habitually. "Sokka's just..." There was a pause. An odd one. She couldn't describe how it was odd, something just seemed...off. "Well, you know how he is: he sets his mind to something and he wants to get it taken care of. Ever since the festival in Ba Sing Se ended he's been wanting to go back to our tribe and spend time with our dad."
"You want to see your dad, too, don't you?"
"Of course I do," Katara answered. "But I can be patient. The war is over: our father isn't going anywhere," she noted with a laugh. It was kind of an involuntary laugh, like she was still coming to terms with that idea: that she could just go see her father whenever she wanted for a change. "He's fine, he doesn't need us right now. But you do...don't you?" Katara said it in that way that was conclusive, that she already knew this was the case.
"Mm," Toph hummed with a shrug. That hand continuing to run across her head was pleasant and reassuring. Katara would really hold off on seeing her own father - her flesh and blood father- just to try and help her feel better? Sokka would sacrifice his boomerang and his sword to save her life, which was awesome, but...what was he willing to do for her happiness? And why did she care so much to know?
The following day and a half was long and slow, with little to do but dwell on the many thoughts that had been brought to Toph's attention over the day and a half prior. Lost in the endless fog of noise from the wind all around, Toph's mind retreated to her recent memories. She hid from the bitter nothingness: swimming with Sokka, crying into Aang's chest, falling asleep to Katara's heartbeat.
Partway during the first day of their trip back, Sokka and Suki had found their faces magnetically attached, only for Katara to scold them apart. This had made her realize that she and Aang had been specifically less mushy than usual. It took some time, but it managed to click in her head that the two of them were trying to be considerate of her comment of feeling awkward. That night had been bizarre, as Toph, sleeping with Katara and Aang once again, found it practically impossible to not pay attention to the vibrations coming from the nearby tent. They didn't carry enough force for her to tell exactly what was going on, but enough to know it likely involved all manner of kissing and rubbing and gross things. How gross, exactly, she couldn't decipher - likely for the best. All the same, it was like trying to fall asleep with a rooster-cat meowing every few seconds. She found herself wrapping around Katara, clinging to the Thum-thump's to drown out the 'racket' from the neighboring tent.
The next thing she was conscious of was what sounded like Aang's voice.
Wow. Her body was taking its time waking up.
"Haha, good morning," Aang cheerfully welcomed her. She couldn't comprehend what time of day it could've been. The altitude made everything chilly.
"Didn't sleep too well, did you, Toph?" Katara sympathetically wondered. "We tried waking you but you wouldn't budge so we had to drag you up here!"
"Muhhhh," Toph moaned, turning her body around to get comfortable. Hm. This pillow felt a lot like...Aang's bony lap...? No wonder it wasn't the most comfy thing. Her friends giggled at her inability to speak properly.
"Aw, poor girl," Katara teased. "She probably couldn't deal with your snoring last night, Aang," she picked.
"H-Hey, I don't snore that bad!" Aang protested, seeming somewhat flustered by the remark.
"Yea you do," Sokka disagreed flatly from somewhere behind them.
"We there yet?" Toph managed to grumble out, desperately trying to find a comfortable spot on the mass of stickly limbs.
"Nope," Sokka informed. "But we should be there around sun down."
Toph yawned and scratched her stomach before rolling off of Aang's uncomfortable lap and into the secure leather saddle she was familiar with. With her face half buried in leather she groggily eked out a remark.
Well, good, 'cuz I'm gettin' sick of flying.
"Whh grd cuz mm get sicko fling..."
She sighed a relaxed, peaceful breath as a bony hand scratched at her head. She could really start getting used to all of this scratching and petting and hugging and such. If this was what Momo and Appa experienced every day, she'd gladly trade lives with them every now and then. But it'd be real nice if Sokka was following Aang and Katara's lead here...
"Why is she so sleepy?" Suki asked with a tint of concern. Toph was in that strange netherworld of consciousness where she could hear what was going on but couldn't really move herself to do anything about it. "Was she up late?" Ohhh, she was up late, all right, all thanks to that stupid warrior princess seducing Sokka throughout the night.
"Mm-hm," Katara nodded. "I think she was having trouble sleeping for some reason. Probably just everything that's happened. I'm sure she has a lot on her mind."
Whatever. Screw my parents. Don't even care anymore about those stupid freaking losers.
"Yea," Suki murmured. Yuck, that tone was distinctly shrouded in pity. "Poor thing. I can't believe her parents would do something so horrible to her..." Oh, shut up. Don't need your pity, don't care what you think.
"I know," Katara agreed with a sigh. "I'm not sure what to think of her parents anymore. I thought I understood where they were coming from: apparently, I was wrong." Yea, you were. Can't believe I listened to you. Stupid letter.
"At least she's got us now," Sokka chimed in casually from the direction of Appa's head - he must have been piloting. "I mean, that's what matters at this point, right?" Whatever...
"Definitely," Aang vigrously agreed.
Hey, wait, no, don't stop with the scratching. That felt nice...
"Now, who knows if that's a good thing," Sokka conceded. "I mean...Come on...This is us we're talkin' about."
"I know, Hawky, I know! We're not worthy of your presence."
"..can't believe...name like Hawky.."
"..my bird...what I want."
"...want is stupid..haha..."
"I thought we were supposed to keep traveling," Toph complained to Katara as the bustling sounds of Ba Sing Se had finally become a dull hum below. "What about the cliff diving? And, I dunno, the fishing? And...all of that? And-and what's with the South Pole? When did we plan on that?"
"We didn't." She felt a firm grip on her shoulder as Katara whispered in her ear, trying to calm her down. "I..." There was some hesitation. Something was up. "This wasn't my idea," she precluded. "If you really want to know, I'll explain after we get home."
"O-OK," Toph mumbled, confused and suddenly complacent. It didn't sound dire, but it sounded like she wasn't supposed to talk about it. What the hell was the deal?
"Don't worry, it's not bad," Katara insisted with a warmth Toph was quickly coming to appreciate, rather than abhor. The pressure on her shoulder let up as Aang yelled out a 'Yah!' to Appa. Fwip-crack! She felt her stomach lurch as vertigo set in - they were heading in to land. The different voices of the air howled through her ears as her hands tightened around the edges of the saddle.
THUD. The world quaked into existence in an instant, all kinds of shapes scattered about. Eager to be on solid ground, Toph lept from Appa's back, and the city sharpened around her when her feet touched down. Blurbs and blobs became buildings and merchants. She stretched out her arms, stood up on her toes, and wiggled her fingers around. It was kind of nice to be back home without anything in particular to worry about. No underground fighting, no stupid parents, no Fire Nation war, no festival: no rules. Awesome.
A few minutes later, the gang had sorted themselves into their little house that had been assigned to them when they had originally arrived - a gracious gift from the timid king for the Avatar. She could hear shuffling as Suki unpacked people's things, Aang played around with Momo, and Sokka started clattering around in the kitchen area.
"Can I help?" Toph wondered, oddly interested in trying to be useful. Fuu. Clack. Fuu. Clack. He was inspecting the cupboards. Frrf frrf. Hawky ruffled his feathers, perched on Sokka's shoulder.
"Actually," Sokka slowly began, thip-thip, tapping his foot thoughtfully. "I was thinking of cooking us up some chicken and rice but we'd need some chicken."
"Toph and I will go and get some," Katara offered eagerly, nudging Toph's head into a sideways hug of sorts.
"Sounds great," Sokka acknowledged, still digging around the kitchen. Clitter, tak, scuff. "I'll get some water boiling. Hey, Sweetie, would ya mind getting some green beans from the garden out back?"
"Sure thing, Dear, Suki obiently complied.
"Let's go," Katara eased with a pat on the back.
"Hey, Aang," Sokka requested as they made their way out. "Can you go get us some water?"
"Some water, can you go grab some? There's a bucket right over here."
"Sorry, I can't hear you."
"You can learn manners, Sokka! Heheh."
And there he went, speeding on past them, ruffling their clothes and hair around. It felt weird to Toph, having her hair arranged in a way that caused it to flop all around. She had to twist her head to put thick braid back in place.
"Is that boy making you act nice?" Suki teased, her voice faint as Toph and Katara were already outside.
"It's an uphill battle," Sokka joked casually.
"Well, excuse me, Hawky. We mortals can't be perfect like you."
Toph found herself smirking at his idiocy, but it was wiped from her face when she heard a snicker from Suki. Blech.
She decided to ignore the remnants of their voices and focus on Katara as they made their way into the busy streets. Ponce-ponce, a kid bounced a leather ball into the ground, his friends chasing after him. A customer and a merchant debated the worth of a dozen catfish-salmon. Chunk-ka-chunk, a man wheeled around his cart full of vegetables.
"My cabbages!" wailed a voice from the scene of the cart's collision.
Chinka-chh-clink-chink-chh-clinka. Toph almost felt like dancing to that sound: the lovely coins jingling in Katara's waist pouch were like a choir.
"Soooo what's the deal?" she bluntly asked as they hit the market square.
"Right," Katara muttered with a sigh. "Sokka didn't want you to know because...He doesn't want you to think he's trying to...to...'get in your business,' as he put it." She sounded kind of annoyed. "He thinks that you'd get upset if you felt like he was 'babying' you or something."
"He thinks that's what you're doing, huh?"
She huffed through her nose in a rather cross fashion. "Yea," she grumbled. Her irritation crumbled into worry. "Uh...I'm...I'm not doing that, am I?"
"Baha," Toph chuckled, slapping her stomach. "Of course you do, Sugar Queen - some times. But, well...it's not always bad, ya know?"
"I'm glad to hear that." Toph couldn't help but smile a little at the relief in her voice. Somehow Katara's intense concern was causing a reciprocation of some kind.
"But what's up, anyway?" Toph asked.
"Oh, well, it's...Sokka-well, I mean, all of us-we feel bad with what happened with your family. Sokka had this idea after Aang told him how he looks at you like a sister." They had reached their destination, the scent of slabs of freshly cut chicken somewhat luring Toph's stomach into hunger. Chinkalinklink. Calishhink. Katara handed money to the merchant.
"Thank you, ladies," his gruff voice greeted. He was a large man, Toph could tell. His girth seemed to convey a gentleness somehow. Nice old guy. She recognized his shape and voice a little. They'd probably bought food from him before.
"Have a good day," Katara sweetly called back, an entire raw chicken in tow.
"So," she grunted, getting a good grip on the slippery thing, "Sokka decided that if you're like a sister to us, then...maybe it'd be a good idea for you to meet our dad. Since...he'd kind of be like your dad now...If you wanted."
Toph remembered the strong leader who had helped them invade the Fire Nation during the eclipse and the many stories Sokka had told of his brave deeds. The idea of such a noble warrior being some kind of new father in her life was...kind of awesome.
"Wh...-?" She was a bit speechless. Was it really as simple as all that? Oh, looks like your parents hate you. Here ya go! Have a brother! Have a sister! Have a dad! It just seemed too...easy. "W-well, why have you been saying I don't have to go, then?"
"We want to see our dad anyway," Katara explained. "And Sokka didn't want you to feel like we were forcing you to go." Huh. For how he had been acting, maybe Sokka did care just as much as Aang and Katara did... "Soooo...That's...what's up."
"So you guys are changing all of yours plans...just for me."
"Mm-hm! B-but don't let anyone know I told you," she quickly spat out.
"Don't worry, Sugar Queen, secret's safe with me."
After they arrived home, Sokka and Suki set to prepare dinner while Katara set some water to boil in a kettle.
"It's gonna be a while before food is ready," Sokka announced. Choppa-choppa-choppa. He was dicing up something with precision, each stroke identical. Choppa-choppa-CHUNK. "Gaaahhh!" he shrieked in abject horror. Toph's heart froze up - had he just cut his cute little finger?
"Wh-what's wrong? Are you OK?" Suki cried in fright. Wibble, waaahhll...Katara was bending water from a bucket, likely to heal whatever damage had been done.
"Pffff! Man, you guys are easy," Sokka struggled out through a hearty guffaw. Whew! So he was fine. Just stupid. So...perfectly fine.
Slap! Smack! The girls had just belted him. "Ow-ow-ow! Geez! Seriously, you guys need to lighten up a little!"
"You should probably go take Momo outside," Suki suggested through a sigh as the creature sounded like he was scrambling around. A small crunch indicated he had just stolen an uncooked green bean.
"All right," Aang merrily offered. Fwohhhh-ohohoh.
"Gotcha!" Slirp slirp. "Haha, c'mon, buddy." Tip-tip-tip-tip-tip.
Toph tapped her foot a few times, trying to identify where that money pouch had gone. Ah-ha, there it was. She shuffled over and nonchalantly slipped a few coins out of the pouch. She rubbed her fingers against them to check their weight and texture. Yep, oughtta be more than enough.
"Hey, Missy," Katara suspiciously called. Eep. "What's that for?"
"I-I was just thinkin' of going out to go get some tea before dinner," Toph blurted out. "Uh, please?"
Katara giggled at her nervousness, running her soft hand through the girl's bangs. She flipped Toph's braid, likely to check that it was 'presentable.'
"It's fine, Toph," she assured. "But I'm about to make tea, you don't have to go out to get some."
"No offense," Toph objected, "Your tea's OK. But it's got nothin' on the stuff I'm gonna get."