A/N: I'm sure after Secret of the Fire Nation, everybody and their momma will be writing a fic like this, but I did it first! Okay, so I probably didn't, but here it is anyway. Special thanks to Pseudonym Undercover, my partner in crime, who helped me with this even though it was supposed to be a present for her. Con-crit is readily accepted, just please be nice about it.
Disclaimer:Avatar: The Last Airbender and all associated characters are the property of Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko and Nickelodeon studios. I am making no profit off this bit of fanfiction, I just borrowed the characters for a little UST.
"I don't know about this."
"Come on, Toph, you were in real trouble back there, and I don't want it to happen again. Just give it a try, will you?"
Through the contact of her bare feet with the ground, she could "see" Sokka standing just a few feet in front of her, but from the shins upward his shape grew hazy and indistinct from the effect of the water she could hear trickling past. She was standing in sandy mud that squished between her toes, which in and of itself wasn't terrible. But she was also feeling very, very vulnerable, which had almost as much to do with her being stripped down to her underwear as what he was asking of her.
At the edge of her "vision," Aang and Katara flashed in and out of her consciousness as they dove into the water and climbed out again. While Toph could understand, kind of, how they could be so comfortable in the water, she couldn't understand how Katara could be so comfortable running around in her underwear. Especially if she felt about Aang the way Toph thought she did, and there wasn't a lot Toph missed.
So maybe it wasn't the underwear thing. Maybe it was just what Sokka was trying to get her to do.
Maybe it was just Sokka.
"I'm right here," he said, his voice the low, gentle sort of tone he rarely used. "I won't let go of you."
Toph's stomach was flip-flopping so violently, she felt like she was going to vomit. She would have been blushing, probably, if all the blood hadn't already drained from her face with the effort of going this far. She felt like she hadn't in... well... ever. Focusing on the location of his feet, Toph reached out blindly and was gratified by the feel of warm, rough hands closing over hers.
She inched one foot forward, and then the other. The wet sand sloped away beneath her, weaving between a generous deposit of river-smooth pebbles. The water lapped at her toes, then crept up to her ankles, cool and refreshing in the afternoon heat. Sokka's hands were on her slender wrists as he backed away, kicking sand up into the water column as he led her forward. The soil suspended in the water gave her an idea of the stream's velocity, and she focused on that. There was a shale deposit beneath the streambed, and she focused on that. Her breath was starting to come in sharp, panicked gasps and she tried not to think about that at all.
Water. It was just water. She'd been in water before. Baths, streams, it was no big deal. The water was past her thighs and starting to slide over her belly. Sokka was holding her hands higher, almost above her head. The stones rolled about under her feet, slick with algae. The water was over her ribs and almost to her armpits. Katara was laughing, clear as a bell in the warm air.
"Now I want you to kick off the bottom," Sokka murmured.
She'd known this was coming. Toph curled her toes against the jumble of sand and stone that formed the riverbed, neither noticing or caring the sharper rocks that bit into her skin.
"I think I'll keep my feet on the bottom, thanks."
"That isn't going to work, Toph. Stop being so stubborn, you can't just walk along the bottom everywhere."
"Wherever I can't is somewhere I'm not going."
"You ever heard of a flash flood? The value of swimming is a practical life skill."
"So who said I had to be practical?" But she gave the rocky river bottom a tentative push with one foot anyway, and gravity immediately pulled her forward, water shooting into her mouth and up her nose, making her cough and sputter and flail until she regained her footing.
Katara was standing on the shelf of rock in the bend a few hundred yards further down the stream, and she and Aang were looking toward them now.
"Sokka, what are you doing? Is something wrong?" she called.
"Nobody invited you to bring your half-naked waterbending show to our side of the river," Sokka replied sharply. "We're having a private party over here."
"Private party?" There was an edge of clear warning in Katara's tone, but Aang settled her by murmuring, "Come on, they're not doing anything, let's leave them alone."
And she did. They both did. They turned around and went back to talking quietly amongst themselves. The unsettled feeling in Toph's stomach didn't go away, but she was filled with such intense gratitude that she no longer felt like she was about to lose her lunch.
Sokka slid his hands up her arms to grip her in a more steadying position. His voice gentle, unspeakably gentle, he said, "You have to trust me."
Toph nodded, silent.
"Try it again," Sokka said.
Time seemed to slow. As much as a damn cliché as Toph knew it was to think that, it really seemed to. Her calves tensed, lifting her heels, her feet arched. She contacted the stones with just the balls of her feet, then her toes, then nothing at all, and her whole universe narrowed to the strong hands on her arms and the soft, encouraging voice telling her to kick. She gasped and spat water out as it splashed up into her mouth, but he was keeping her chin above the surface this time, and she got the feeling of moving, of drifting, as she kicked behind her with both legs.
"You're doing a great job," Sokka told her. Toph didn't feel like she was doing such a great job, but she wasn't drowning, which was a distinct improvement from the last time she'd been plunged into water deeper than her waist.
For a minute or two, he held her and she kicked, or he pulled her and she kicked, it was really impossible to tell. It was the longest she had voluntarily been out of contact with the ground perhaps ever, aside from riding Appa. Then Sokka mumbled something and very definitely pulled her, and almost immediately she felt an eddying sensation of water beneath her, followed by some part of him bumping against her chest. Toph thought that there seemed to be an awful lot of him coming into contact with an awful lot of her all of the sudden before becoming aware of the fact that he had apparently leaned backward into the water and had pulled her on top of him.
She was going to die. She wasn't going to drown. She was just going to expire on the spot.
Sokka was just as half-naked as all the rest of them were, and his skin was very warm and very, very smooth. He was tugging at Toph's wrist and saying something, but she was having a hard time figuring out what it was. It wasn't time that had slowed, it was her brain.
"What?" she asked loudly.
"Move your arms like this," Sokka said again, tugging her wrist in an elliptical, semi-crawling semi-reaching motion.
"Oh, right," Toph mumbled, and then started to paddle. Her elbows knocked into his sides, her knees kept hitting his thighs, and he didn't complain. His hands were curved around her slight frame just beneath where the band of fabric wrapped around her chest (more hopefully than usefully). It was disorienting. It was heavenly.
"Ready to try it on your own?" Sokka didn't wait for an answer, she could already feel his grip relaxing, his body pulling away from hers.
"No!" Toph cried, clutching desperately at his shoulders.
"Hey, hey, I've got you." Sokka wrapped his arms around her and stood, the length of her body pressed against his, but Toph was too busy trying to find the bottom with her feet. She couldn't reach it, not without submerging her face. And not with the way he was holding her.
"Sokka," she sputtered, squirming. "Sokka, I can't-"
"Yes you can," he said. "I'm right here and I won't let you go. I'll hold you up, you just have to swim around. You trust me, right?"
Toph made a gurgling noise, coughed up another mouthful of water, and nodded. When Sokka reminded her that she had to let go of him for this to work, she gradually did so.
"I've got you," Sokka whispered.
Both of his forearms crossed her stomach as he held her up to the surface, and, thus suspended, she kicked and paddled and paddled and kicked, listening for his mumbles of encouragement over the splash of the water. She was so intent on listening that she didn't notice when the two arms supporting her became one, and that became only a hand, and then nothing. When Toph realized she was swimming on her own, she immediately floundered and sank like a stone, and was just as quickly hauled up and out of the water and pulled back into the circle of Sokka's arms.
She coughed. Droplets of water trickled down Toph's face, streamed from her hair, clung to her thick eyelashes.
"See? You're fine," Sokka assured her.
She could feel his breath washing over her face. They were so close. Her lips were water-moist and trembling. She could feel his, or imagined she could, a hair's breadth away. Toph tilted her head... and encountered nothing.
"Hey," Sokka said. His voice came more from her left side; he had turned from her. "I think that's enough swim practice for today."
Toph slithered out of his embrace before he could carry her back to the water was more shallow, pushing away from him when he tried to grab her, sound muffled as the water closed over her head. Her toes touched pebbles that rolled away beneath them, and in the next instant she was standing on top of a massive pile that surged up and out of the river to form a narrow spit leading back to its edge.
She could see again. Sokka was behind her. She couldn't pick up anything much higher than his knees, but from his stance she could guess that he might be confused. It didn't matter. She was walking away.
Hands on his hips, Sokka glared after her. "Sure, no problem, any time," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Under his breath he added, "When you're dressed, so I don't feel so much like a lecher."
Toph scooped up her discarded clothing, stalked over to her stone tent, and slammed the entrance shut.