Yes, I've been gone for a sinfully long time, but now I'm back! And, to celebrate my re-immersion in this fandom, I've brought you another chapter full of Toph and Sokka goodness!
(I've been having a very love-hate relationship with Season 3. I love it, because it's a new season, but I hate it because Toph has barely played any part at all! She's just been standing around! There's been lots of Katara and Aang and Kataang, so maybe we'll see some Toph and Sokka stuff later on.)
A Random Author's Comment: I'm determined to popularize the term 'Kataango', invented by Invaderk (who is awesome, by the way). It applies to that scene in 'The Headband' which had me grinning like a maniac even though I'm not a particularly adamant Kataang shipper. It's just a wonderful word, and it made me smile. Go read Invaderk's stuff!
Also, I've got some lovely thoughts brewing for a multichap fic, so if I'm not updating it's probably because I'm working on that.
Okay, with the randomness over, let me present: the latest chapter of 'Of All Time', which takes place somewhere after the end of the war. Read and enjoy!
"You did what?"
Really, Sokka mused to himself, he should have been more prepared for this. He should have expected something like this to happen; after all, hadn't he lived with the Avatar long enough to know that there was no such thing as a restful vacation, that every time it looked like the world was settling down something bizarre happened just to fill the void? Hadn't he learned by now that weird and psychotic coincidences followed all of the Avatar's friends like lost puppies, nipping constantly at their heels?
He had been dragged through circumstances more trying than this, more unexpected, more unbelievable and possibly catastrophic. All he was really dealing with was an incredibly powerful and decidedly arrogant noble family, who required his presence to help deal with their treasured only daughter, who happened to be blind and the greatest Earthbending master the world had ever seen and who had been sent to stay with them for a relaxing vacation… which obviously at this point wasn't going to happen.
Really, Sokka scolded himself, he was going soft, getting spoiled and trusting from weeks of nonthreatening diplomacy. When a man in green and gold had burst into the Avatar's impromptu throne room in Omashu and started babbling incoherently about Earthbenders and marriage and mountains, the first seeds of suspicion should have started itching at the back of Sokka's mind.
When he had managed to get a few drinks into the man and calm him down and the first words out of his mouth had been Toph's name, Sokka should have quietly and discreetly engaged the paranoid part of his brain and started fomenting conspiracy theories.
When the messenger had further elaborated that Toph was in trouble, or surrounded by trouble (where there was Toph there was always trouble, it only remained to be seen if she was the one causing it) and that he, Sokka (and only Sokka), had to come at once, the paranoid part of the Water Tribe warrior's brain should have been quaking and screaming in the back of his skull.
But the war was over, had been over for some time, and the lack of conflict had apparently dulled his warrior's intuition, and his paranoia, for that matter; he had been expecting… well, he wasn't sure what he had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this.
His expectations were irrelevant now, he told himself sharply; now it was time to deal only in the facts, time to harness the powers of science and strategy that had carried him so successfully through a war of magic and mysticism. What were the facts of the situations, the strategies, the potential solutions to be wrung from reality's unyielding form?
There were things he knew. He knew, for instance, that he was no longer in the safe and luxurious palace of Omashu. He knew that he was standing in a sheltered shadowed grove at the base of a mountain, having been led and left there by a pale, official-looking man. He knew that the mighty Beifong estate was rising over a hill to his left, he could feel the predatory eye of the carved wooden winged boar on his back. He knew that the owner of that estate, the mighty Lord Lao Beifong, was standing before him and piercing him with a glance that was just as fierce, just as bloodthirsty, if less outright hostile. And he knew that, if what the man had told him was true, there was going to be hell to pay.
"You must understand, young man…" The lord's countenance was growing stormier, frostier by the second, and he looked regal and yet ridiculously out of place surrounded by the deep wild swamp-shadows beneath the trees, framed by the sheer smoke-blue face of the mountain. "You must understand, Sokka," the man corrected himself, with the words Water Tribe peasant hanging unspoken in the air in the tone of his voice, "There are certain conventions which must be observed. No matter what… adventures my daughter has amused herself with in the past few years, she has a duty to herself, to her family, to her nation that must be fulfilled. She has no choice. She is still my daughter, and she is still under my authority…"
"Yeah, sure," Sokka muttered distractedly, ignoring the senseless buzzing of the man's voice (Toph? Authority? He must have been delusional), focusing instead on a rattling of bushes and rustling of leaves, a shuddering of movement off in the undergrowth that signaled someone's approach.
His quick glance took in a great, glittering, expansive explosion of green. It was a brilliant clear spring day and the sun was beating down in full force, blazing every blade of grass into sharp relief, making the trees burn from within, like candle wicks encased in emerald; he stood at the crown of a hill that formed one side of a small valley, and just below the ground dipped sharply into a grassy bowl before soaring up again into the ragged façade of forest-covered mountains. The entire tableau seemed to be a shading of green, from the sharp prickling bright jades of the grass and moss, to the deep primordial swamp-shadows of the mountain trees, etched and accented by the smooth smoke-blue of the stone itself.
Approaching swiftly from the direction of the low sprawling shadows of the manor house, Sokka caught sight of a different sort of green, a silhouette clad in almost-glowing green that billowed and glinted with golden gilt; as it approached, he was able to discern the painted mask of Lady Beifong and, walking closely in her path, a young man perhaps a few years older than Sokka himself. The newcomer was done up in the same glittering robes as the noble pair, and he was vaguely good-looking, in a rather slimy way. Sokka's gaze glossed over him, dismissed him as a servant or dignitary or something, and returned immediately to Lord Beifong's stormy countenance, which was slowly losing its lordly composure as the man realized that he was being either slighted or ignored.
"You must excuse my lack of hospitality," the lord said loudly, drawing Sokka's attention back to himself with a curt tone that disavowed any sort of regret at all. "I am afraid the circumstances under which we were forced to ask for your presence demand that we conduct business here, where the comforts of my home are unavailable to us."
Lady Beifong arrived at a sort of scuttling gait, and flitted up to whisper in her husband's ear; she reminded Sokka irresistibly of a sparrow, a nightingale, a small lovely songbird that clashed violently in his mind with Toph, the mountain, the force of nature. Lao Beifong nodded at his wife's assertion, and turned to address Sokka directly again, though still with the slight curling of his lip that broadcast his disgust at having to interact with such a peasant, such an obviously lowly life-form.
"This is Kahnu, the only son of the Pang family, who live in a village nearby." One long-fingered hand emerged from the lord's large sleeves to indicate the well-dressed young man, who stiffly inclined his upper body, just deeply enough to constitute a bow but just slightly enough to convey his own scorn. "When Toph returned to us," Lao Beifong continued, "we presented Kahnu to her as the lord he will someday be, with all of the wealth and influence that his family holds. She was blatantly disrespectful. She absolutely refused to show the deference due to someone of Kahnu's station, or even his father's station, and nothing we could say would persuade her otherwise; she would not act with the manners of propriety that we took such pains to teach her in her youth. Finally, out of desperation, we were forced to … reveal something we had hoped to withhold a little longer, in the hopes that it would get her to obey."
Sokka could feel Kahnu still scorching a lingering glare over the length of his body, but he ignored it. He didn't care what the lordlet thought of him, he was completely unaffected by his malice; he felt muscles tensing and his teeth clenching together, not because of the other man's contempt, but because he could feel the tone of hesitance and warning in Lao Beifong's voice, he knew that the next words spoken would be important. The next sentence would be a vital clue as to why he had been summoned from Omashu, why he was now speaking to an important lord in the middle of the forest, why that selfsame lord kept stealing nervous looks at the face of the mountain over his shoulder. Lao Beifong was hiding something, wrestling with it behind his unflickering countenance, fighting to keep it behind his teeth but knowing at the same time that it would have to be said.
"We informed Toph that she is to be married in the summer," he said finally, with a sort of desperately ignorant defiance, "and that Kahnu was to be her groom. It is more than propriety, it is her duty to obey him… she did not respond to the news as we hoped she would."
Sokka wasn't listening; his attention had been distracted, the universe had exploded, burst out wide and then snapped in small again, focusing and centered on the nondescript young man looking ridiculous among the flowering trees. Suddenly every twitch of his facial muscles, every stitch of his clothing, every inch of his form was bursting with meaning, scheming, malice; the vague empty smile was cunning and predatory, the blank emotionless eyes were wicked and wily, the tilt of his head was obnoxious, his expression was sneering. He had gone from human being to a monster, a maggot, a worm; Sokka felt himself bristling, felt himself fighting back the instinct to bare his teeth in rage. This sleazy worm, this weasel, wasn't worthy of anything, wasn't worthy of the air he was breathing or the land he was standing on, wasn't worthy of Sokka's scrutiny. He sure as hell wasn't worthy of Toph; smart, strong, bluntly beautiful Toph, obeying and fawning over this oozing scum, this thing… the nerve, the insolence of it!
Sokka had, a few times in his life, regretted that he couldn't bend, that he would be forever helpless against his little sister's enemies and forever powerless to match her strength. But now he found himself cursing his utterly ordinary hands for an entirely different reason; he wanted to smash this bastard's skull full of shale, burn the smirk off his face with a jolt of lightning, freeze the blood in his veins or slip the air out of his lungs. As it was, his hand crept to the boomerang tucked into his belt, and he felt all of the old warrior instincts pounding back into his skull with a titanic roar. Toph's would-be husband (the thought made him sick to his stomach) continued to stare at him beatifically (moronically, dumb and drooling, unfit to live).
"… and after that unpleasant episode, she wrenched the gates off of their hinges and stormed out of the gardens. One of our guards reported her opening a hole in the face of this stone formation behind me, going in, and shutting the entrance behind her. We've had our Earthbending soldiers try to get her out, of course, but she has refused to emerge, and our best soldiers have not been able to force her out. You see why we needed your presence. We are hoping that she will talk to you."
Lao Beifong stopped speaking suddenly, as though hoping to end his words as quickly as possible to keep Sokka from noticing the unmistakable tone of panic and desperation underneath them. Sokka managed to tear his suddenly-loathful gaze away from Kahnu, and focused it again over Lao Beifong's shoulder, at the massive but distinctly nonthreatening mountain face that arched up into the sky not far away.
"Let me make sure I have this straight," he heard himself saying as though from a great distance, his mind churning frantically with possibilities and words. "You told Toph that she was to be forced to marry against her will, and her response was to shut herself inside a mountain."
Lao Beifong didn't reply to this; no reply was possible. He only inclined his head in what might have been grim acknowledgement, and waited; when Sokka did not move, but instead stood rooted to the spot glaring viciously at Kahnu (he'd decided that the whelp needed some more being-glared-at before they could move on to the next stage of the operation), Lao Beifong cleared his throat conspicuously. When this still produced no response, he added in peeved tones, "We did not expect such unpleasant consequences, and we would like them resolved as soon as possible."
The man was simply speaking to hear the sound of his own voice, speaking so that the words would act as a sting to spur the sequence on to its conclusion, but Sokka felt that this statement was so shocking as to deserve its own period of silence. He transferred his glare from the slimy young upstart to the slimy arrogant lord, allowing it to migrate into a blank, utterly nonplussed stare. He wondered, vaguely, if the Lord Beifong had ever actually met his daughter. ("Hi, this is Toph; blind, master Earthbender, mean as hell when provoked. She doesn't like being ordered around. Any questions?")
There was nothing for it. Feeling considerably saddened at the state of the world and those who inhabited it, Sokka only shook his head, sighed, and turned to face the mountain in question (after shooting one last poisoned-dagger glare at Kahnu's glazed smile for good measure).
The mountain was completely ordinary, as far as mountains went. It was large, and immobile and, from what Sokka could gather just by looking at it, was made entirely of stone. Some scraggly trees struggled against gravity higher up on its slopes, but where Sokka was standing he faced only a very rugged, sheer wall of smoke-blue shaded stone. It was far from smooth, that was certain -- boulders and crevasses crisscrossed it like scars -- but there were no cave mouths, no cracks wide enough for a person, albeit a fairly small person, to fit through. (Sokka was irrepressibly reminded of hands in his, so small they were swallowed in his grip, and a silhouette pressed against him that was a shoulder-high bastion of warmth on windy flights, and the shock of seeing someone who was only shoulder-high on him rip apart a rearing stone wall.)
When initial examination of the mountain brought forth no useful information, Sokka strode forward, picking his way through the undergrowth towards the stone façade, his steps slowing and growing more cautious as he approached the jagged slope's base. As he left his companions (or torturers) further and further behind, he swore he could feel their collective gazes on his back, on his shoulders, heavy with ignorance and scorn. He could feel his muscles clenching, hear his heartbeat roaring in his ears as he approached the mountain faster still, until he was standing before it, staring blankly at its unyielding stone skin. The forest was wide and silent behind him, and the calm depths of the mountain and the forest slipped into his skin, slid into his lungs, gasped down with every breath; for a moment he could taste the dry sting of dust and dirt in his mouth that always made him think of pale green eyes, for a moment he could feel the shuddering palpitation in his own chest, feel the blood singing through his veins out through to his very fingertips (it was Toph who'd taught him to listen to the rhythm and speed of his own heart).
He blinked, ridding his mind of the haze of emotion and concentrating on the mountain. It was just as solid up close as it had looked from a distance; there was definitely no way Toph could have gotten in without Earthbending, and if she had used Earthbending she had left no door, no mark, no way for anyone to follow or talk to her. She had made it very plain, in her usual blunt manner, that she didn't want to be found; and when Toph didn't want to be found, there was little to no chance that the best trackers of any nation, let alone Sokka, was going to be able to find her.
That was all right, Sokka told himself, standing with his arms crossed over his chest, surveying the mountain warily. Science had an answer for everything. Quickly he began riffling through his memories, comparing all of the data on Toph that years of friendship had afforded him, acoustic properties of stone and trees, heuristics and equations; finally he settled on a strategy, a formula, that had been tried and tested and had always served him well.
The simple solutions were always best, and Sokka adhered to the simplest (and therefore the best) solution of all; when in doubt, yell.
"Toph!" he bellowed, and the silence of the forest was shattered into bright fragments as birds erupted from the surrounding treetops, twittering madly and pounding the air with the dull sounds of their wings. Sokka waited patiently for their frantic noises to subside, waited for the echoes of his shout to fade away into the shadows of the trees, waited through a short period of silence after. He received no response; then, just as he was filling his lungs to try again, the mountain slope before him leapt to life. Pebbles began clacking madly on its surface, boulders rumbled and shifted, and as Sokka stared dumbly at it he thought he could hear, the ghost of an echo as though from a long way off, his shout returned to him; "Sokka?"
"Toph!" The voice was faint and fuzzy, warped by layers of rock, but unmistakable; Sokka leaped the last two steps to the mountain's slope, scrabbling at the dust and pebbles with both hands, unexpectedly joyful (how long had it been since he'd spoken to her? Too long). "Toph, you're in there? Can you hear me?"
There was another pause; Sokka, who was not stupid no matter what his sister said, imagined the waves of his voice traveling down, down, down into the mountain's heart, compressing granite and shale as it went. Finally he heard the faint buzzing voice again, this time humming more in his fingertips than in his ears; "Of course I can hear you. Your voice is vibrating in the earth." Another pause. "Is he out there?"
"Yes, but far away," Sokka told the mountain, then leaned down to whisper conspiratorially to the stone. "I admire your restraint," he told it frankly, blunt as Toph herself. "If I were you I would have smashed his skull full of shale. Can I come in? Your parents probably think I'm doing some sort of weird voodoo magic out here, talking to the bloody mountain."
There was no answer, but after a suitable pause the mountain itself began to quake and tremble under his feet; Sokka had just enough warning to leap aside before the stone opened up beneath him, and he stood staring at a doorway that opened onto a tunnel boring straight forward into the mountain's heart. In the echoing silence that followed the groaning of the rock, he heard gasps and murmurs echoing back from where Toph's parents still stood; ignoring them, he plunged forward into the dark passageway, not even looking back as he felt rather than heard the opening crashing shut behind him.
He was engulfed by the sudden darkness of the tunnel, the air around him thick with dust kicked up by the movement of stone. The passageway was markedly cooler than the sun-warmed outside air, and the sensations of cold and dark and small closed space made Sokka think for a frantic instant of drowning in dark water; he felt a jolt of instinctive fear before his mind managed to reassert itself. He remembered rock, remembered sound, remembered Toph; he reached out one hand to feel the smooth stone walls of the tunnel, less than arm's length away, and the fear subsided. He trusted Toph, trusted her with his soul, with his life. He knew that she could feel, hear, command the mountain, he knew that being surrounded by stone was as good as being beside her. The fear vanished, and he strode confidently downward, keeping one hand trailing along the stone wall to find his way.
The tunnel was gently sloping and arrow-straight, and the stone underneath his feet felt like a paved road, so smooth was its surface (Toph had taught him that, too, to pay attention to the ground under his boots). In what seemed like no time at all his eyes, straining to discern anything in the uniform black, detected a lightening up ahead, a brighter shading of darkness; he sped up, eager to reach that light, eager to arrive where Toph was surely waiting for him. The light grew clearer and clearer, until after a few more moments he emerged from the tunnel into a huge cavern in the heart of the mountain, lit by green glowing crystals that arched around the walls and shafts of sunlight falling from the outside through crevasses and cracks.
Sokka blinked, trying to adjust his vision to the sudden light, dim as it was. The sunstreaks faded quickly from his vision, but before he could get his bearings something smacked into him, hard, and then he felt Toph's arms around him in a bone-crunching hug, her rocky rough-edged laughter ringing in his ears. Before he could collect himself enough to hug her back she released him and backed away to arm's length, grinning widely as she placed her hands on her hips, pretending to give him an appraising glance.
"It's good to see you!" she said brightly, and punched him on the shoulder hard enough to bruise; Sokka didn't bother to comment at her choice of words, because he found he was grinning too, almost laughing as he fixed her with an appraising glance of his own.
She had grown, he noted ruefully; she still only came up to a little above his shoulder, but considering how much he had grown since their first meeting all those years ago, he was surprised he hadn't noticed how much taller Toph was now. She had left childhood far behind; the woman confronting him now was older, wiser, brighter than the belligerent Earthbending master he'd kidnapped from her well-meaning father.
Toph was dressed in what appeared to have once been fine clothing; the tunic was of loose, fine weave, and months of rich hospitality had conditioned Sokka's eye to see that her outfit must at one time have been quite expensive. Now, however, it was torn and tattered, fraying around the cuffs of her sleeves, stained with mud and darkened where dirt had been rubbed into the weave of the fabric. Sokka's grin widened as he thought that Toph had probably ruined the clothes beyond repair, and that she looked the best he'd ever seen her; she had never looked better than when she was clad in something that, in her father's house, wouldn't have passed for rags. Her glossy black hair was twisted up into a loose bun at the back of her head; in the weak light of the cavern Sokka thought he could detect bits of moss and streaks of dust in it (while she hadn't been enjoying a holiday with her parents, apparently she had been enjoying a holiday from Katara, who would have screeched at that sort of thing).
And then, of course, he found his gaze irresistibly drawn to her eyes, her blank white opaque eyes, and in the dim dusty gold light of the cavern he found himself impossibly reminded of the smoky ivory countenance of the moon.
"Come on, Snoozles, don't just stand there all day; come in!" Toph laughed, reaching out to grab Sokka's hand and pulling him forward, tugging him deeper into the mountain's heart, navigating effortlessly around boulders, crystal outcroppings, piles of debris. Sokka allowed himself to be dragged along, still unable to bite back his grin as Toph sped up, and suddenly the far wall of the cavern leapt into view, and there, at its base…
"Toph," Sokka said slowly as she released his hand and continued on ahead herself. "Toph, how long have you been down here?"
"I'm not sure," she answered thoughtfully, striding forward and throwing herself down on a stone couch that she apparently sculpted out of the native rock. "It's hard to tell time down here, I can't feel the sun… three days, maybe?"
"Three days?" The roaring in his ears was back, the animal rush of rage; a red mist suddenly coalesced before his vision, and Sokka felt his hands twitching, longing to wrap themselves about a certain lordlet's throat. "Your parents have done nothing and you've been down here three days?"
"Nothing? Of course not. My parents have tried everything. It's just that nothing's worked." She flashed him a brilliant grin, and he felt the red mist subsiding, the roar of his own heartbeat fading from his skull. "I like it down here. I can see everything, there's a stream a little farther down, and there's berries and stuff up on the surface, so I have plenty to eat. I'd much rather be down here then up there – with him," she added darkly, the grin vanishing, to be replaced by one of Toph's infamous murderous scowls.
Usually, Sokka mused, it was his position in life to avert the consequences of that scowl, to pick Toph up to keep her from Earthbending, or pull her aside and calm her down, or save whatever poor wretch her wrath was directed against. This time, though, he felt rather inclined to agree with her, even to hold the little wretch down while she pounded him with rocks….
Sokka blinked, biting his lip and gritting his teeth in an effort to slow his own breathing, control his own heartbeat (Toph would see, Toph would know, Toph would suspect). "Speaking of him," he said as casually as he could, "Mind telling me why I got dragged away from the Earth King's kitchens to dig a powerful noble's daughter out of a mountain?"
"Is that why you're here? Well, apparently I was wrong about my father's intelligence. He's managed to do something right after all," Toph growled. "At least he wasn't stupid enough to try and come get me himself."
Sokka inclined his head in acknowledgement, knowing she would feel it through the stone beneath his feet. He grimaced as he thought of what might have happened if Lao Beifong had been a little more brash or a little more stupid; Sokka well knew that the only reason Toph had shut herself inside a mountain was that she couldn't actually throw rocks at her parents. For now, her love of her family was stronger than her love of freedom, but that was a very unstable state of affairs. Let her father push the issue a little more, or make one more idiotic remark, and suddenly Toph would realize that being forever banned from the manor might be a small price to pay to be free…
"You want to know what happened? I'll tell you what happened," Toph snapped, staring with a sullen anger past Sokka's left shoulder, her arms crossed over her chest. Instantly all signs of brightness and happiness were gone, all contentment had vanished, and Sokka felt something tugging uncomfortably close to his heart as Toph's expression grew suddenly stormy, her brilliant smile utterly eclipsed. She shifted restlessly on her seat; the discontent was an old one, a raw wound, a simmering anger seething to be expressed – and express it she certainly did.
"It's simple," Toph said almost woodenly, her words short and clipped and sharp. "I came home, got settled in, and my father said I should start getting ready for the wedding. I asked who was getting married. He prattled on about duty and nobility and convention and honor, then sprang that weasely little bastard on me as my new husband." She shrugged, a quick violent movement of the shoulders, and slipped her blank white gaze down, turning her head aside to fix the floor with her scorching glare. "I really shouldn't have been surprised," she snapped, and Sokka thought he could almost see her tensing, see her entire body growing rigid and straight as she began to get upset. "I should have known something like this would happen. I should have known they'd spring something like this on me, something stupid, something noble. Nothing's changed for them. Nothing will ever change for them. No matter what I do, no matter how many battles I fight, no matter how many times I save the world, it won't be good enough. Nothing's good enough! Nothing's ever good enough for them!" She was on her feet, hands clenched into fists at her sides, teeth gritted and feet spread apart in an Earthbending stance, as though she was preparing for battle. Sokka spared a nervous glance for the cavern over his shoulder as the stalagmites around them groaned and trembled with Toph's distress.
"It's never good enough! I'm not good enough!" Toph shouted, and Sokka snapped his gaze back to her opaque eyes, back to her pale porcelain face now flushed with rage, the ground under her feet shaking with her heaving breaths. "I'll never be anything to them, no matter what I do! All I am is the helpless little nonexistent blind girl, maybe fit to marry some lordling and live like a bird in a little cage for the rest of my life, if I'm lucky!"
"Toph…" Sokka murmured, unsure of whether he meant to warn her, to calm her down, to yell, to whisper. A very large part of him was growing red and loud and angry, was pulsing in time to Toph's vicious words, resonating to the way her voice seemed to echo more times than it should have in the stone cavern. A very large part of him was pounding with her fevered footsteps (she was pacing now, stomping around the cave as though to take her anger out on the stone beneath her). A very large part of him was outraged on her behalf, infuriated that Toph, who had proved herself a hero and a warrior a thousand times over, should be treated like nothing more than a porcelain doll!
But there was something, else, too, something beneath the righteous indignation, something that was smaller and more intense than the anger on Toph's behalf; there was another anger, tight and close and smoldering in a white-hot ember in the pit of his stomach, an animal hatred that had claws and fangs and howled for blood in a deep primordial corner of his brain. It had nothing to do with Toph's freedom and Toph's parents; it had to do with that idiotic lordling's smile, it had to do with his arrogance, his presumption, his nerve in taking Toph for his own after Sokka had fought with her and protected her and been protected by her.
That howling anger wanted to fight, to claw, to punish, it wanted to see the intruder (intruder? that didn't make any sense) scream for mercy. It wanted to kill. It was this much more personal anger that set Sokka's own teeth on edge, made him want to start pacing in Toph's wake (he only stood still because he felt, in some bizarre abstract way, that at least one of them should be rooted and sane and it obviously wasn't going to be Toph).
"They just don't get it!" Toph was shouting, and Sokka snapped his focus back to her, watched sharply as she slid her weight out along one foot, throwing a vicious punch into the air and listening with satisfaction as the stone wall before her crumpled like paper. "They don't understand anything!" she railed, and Sokka had to blink to shield his eyes from the shower of dust her attacks were causing. "They don't understand what it's like to have a real life and real friends, they don't understand what it's like to live in the real world where things happen and people fight and people are free. Their entire world is the upper ring of Ba Sing Se! That's all they understand; fancy parties and groveling and weakness, blindness, stupidity! The upper ring of Ba Sing Se; that's their entire universe," she growled, and her voice had dropped from its murderous crescendo into a softer snarl, but it was bitter and biting and it made Sokka's fist clench without direction from his brain. He wanted to hit the people who had brought that bitterness and helplessness into Toph's voice. He wanted to hurt those people, make them pay for what they'd done (his protective brotherly instincts – and another set of instincts entirely – were making his blood boil).
His attention was distracted yet again, this time by the heavy sensation of Toph's blank eyes fixed on him (was it the silvery cataracts of blindness that made her gaze feel so heavy on his shoulders?). He blinked the red haze out of his vision and turned to face her tirade, only to find that she had stopped speaking and was standing with her arms crossed over her chest again, staring a little past his ear, a scowl on her face and one bare foot tapping in a slow, steady rhythm against the stone.
Sokka forgot to wonder why she had fallen silent, he forgot to be angry at the circumstances outside the mountain, he forgot to ask Toph what she was doing, or comfort her, or yell at her, or whatever it was he'd intended to do a moment ago (which he couldn't remember). His attention was completely and utterly distracted by the sight of her, standing by some marvelous coincidence directly underneath one of the weak, unsteady beams of sunlight that streamed through a crack in the vaulted ceiling high above them, spilling down into the mountain's heart.
While he stared, breathless and dumbfounded, Toph stood still as any pillar of stone, waiting; then, when she was sure she had his full attention, she slowly extended one clenched fist out towards him, and uncurled her fingers. For a crazy, blazing moment Sokka wanted to grab the outstretched hand, pull her closer and then he was thinking about doing things that the sane part of his mind screamed at him he really, really should not be doing. Then he noticed that Toph had something in her palm, and he managed to shove the roaring weight of his own thoughts away long enough to see what it was.
She was still standing with her feet planted in a defensive Earthbending stance, steady as a mountain, rooted as a hill; only she was starting to shake, very slightly, tremors dissipating down her limbs and into the earth as she trembled with rage and other emotions that Sokka could not identify. And in her hand, held palm up for the entire world to see, there was a small, shiny ring.
"This is what he gave me," Toph spat, unresisting as Sokka stepped forward and took it from her, lifting it on the tip of one finger with a sort of horrified fascination as though it contained some hidden poison, as thought it would bite him like a snake. He was no metal expert, but he flicked his finger against the side of it anyway, and held it up to his eye, peering through it at the cave beyond; it was a silly gesture, and a stupid one, but he felt it was necessary (there was more to the ring that first appeared; and Sokka, ever the man of science, wanted to find out what it was).
Brass, probably, or bronze, he decided. It was small, barely large enough to slide over his pinky finger; he thought that it would be just the right size for Toph's astonishingly delicate hands, but that thought was full of blind howling rage (the slimy suitor sliding it onto her, his hands touching her, it made him sick), so he shoved it down to the back of his skull and focused on the ring again. There were carvings dancing around the outer rim; Sokka, peering in the dim light of the cavern, could identify the flying boar crest of Toph's family, united with a strange crest featuring a dragon coiled upon itself like an adder.
Inspection complete, Sokka handed the ring back to Toph; she seized it from him and threw it, violently, as though its touch had burned her. "That's what he gave me!" she cried, her voice almost drowning out the faint tinny clattering of the ring fetching up against the stone wall. "They wanted me to give up my life, and my friends, and my freedom – and they think I would do it for that? They think I would sell my freedom for that stupid ring? For the inner ring of Ba Sing Se?"
No, Sokka was yelling with her, inside his head. No, don't sell it, not for this, not for anything. If you sold your soul… The rest of the thought astonished him, but it was already in his head, and he had to follow it through. If Toph ever sold her freedom, agreed to be chained to the upper ring of Ba Sing Se… then Sokka wasn't sure he would be able to go on being free without her.
The revelation was a relief. For the first time, the dull, pounding rage at the base of his skull vanished entirely; the world crystallized before his vision, clear and calm again, and he was able to shut the Beifongs and their silly matchmaking mishaps out of his mind entirely. After all, what did he care if their delusions of grandeur led them astray, down the dangerous path of offending the mightiest Earthbender in the world? What did he care about the petty little lords and their pathetic little politics and power-mongering? All he cared about was Toph (although, if he were ever offered a chance to teach that little Kahnu a lesson or two about what happened when you messed with the Avatar's friends, he certainly wouldn't turn it down).
"Let's get out of here," he said suddenly, too loudly; Toph was standing close to him, so close she was staring directly into his chest, and the sound of his voice startled her so badly that she jumped and pitched forward, almost knocking him down. He steadied her without thinking, and smiled as she pushed him away with a vicious growl.
"Come on," he coaxed, still grinning because he knew she would hear it. "I've got Appa waiting in the village square. Just dig us a tunnel out the other side of the mountain; we'll ditch this place, and we'll be in Omashu with Aang and Katara by morning."
Toph grinned at the mention of those magic names; with only a curt nod to signal her agreement, she turned briskly and set both hands to the stone of the cavern, carving out a tunnel that Sokka could already see he would have to stoop in order to traverse. But he didn't mind; he only watched, grinning, as Toph threw herself into the new task as though trying to cover up for her earlier burst of emotion.
Soon she disappeared into the darkness of the new aperture, moving quickly into the unknown gloom ahead; Sokka moved to follow her, but hesitated as his foot kicked against something that clinked and clattered away from him, rolling with a glint of light to fall into a dusty shadowed corner.
He stepped forward, leaning down to pick up the ring which Toph had so violently renounced, the ring which had started so much trouble and probably derailed the politics of the Earth Kingdom fiefdoms and cities for miles around. Strange, he reflected, how such a little thing could have such far-reaching consequences…
He stood staring at the thing in his hand a moment longer, rubbing it contemplatively with his thumb. Toph had taught him long ago to notice the texture of things; and though he was no expert on Earth Kingdom culture, he knew the feel of a marriage proposal when he encountered one. The Water Tribe necklaces, the Fire Nation medallions, and now this little ring; all of them spoke to the deeper parts of the brain, spoke of devotion, dedication. It was, he reflected, symbolism made tangible, a promise beaten into metal and stone. Love, forever; until the metal corroded away, until the mountains slid into the sea.
Toph's voice shook him out of his reverie, bouncing back down the new tunnel and into the cavern, impatiently calling his name. He hesitated, still holding the ring; then, acting on impulse, he dropped it into a pouch in his belt before trotting off to join Toph (his Toph) somewhere underneath the mountain's roots.
After all, he thought as he felt the bronze beginning to burn through the leather of his belt-pouch, a ring like that was a useful thing to have. You never knew if you'd need it someday.
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