A/n: This is my last piece for Tokka Week, unless I manage to write something on the train back home today! Though let's be real, I will probably just sleep the whole time.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Happy Tokka Week!
Toph knew that something might happen. Katara had spent the last few days trying to reason with the change in Sokka, that subtle shift in his mood perceived only by those closest to him. To others, his hesitation might be symptomatic of their long journey to the outermost fringes of the Earth Kingdom, a regular fatigue. His family, however, could tell that he was not tired, but distracted—maybe via overload from the diligent preparing he had done to get them here, maybe stress acquired from leaning over his maps to translate Aang's strategies into a tangible plan.
But Toph knew that Sokka was terrified. Since the moment they stepped off of Appa and onto this stretch of land, his veins had been jumping in his skin. She saw with her gifted sight what the others could not—his tempered breath, hands quivering in his pockets. He lingered a little closer to her than usual at all times, keeping her just within arm's reach in case one of them should fall.
Toph had seen it before, but only once, and only here. At the place where they almost died together five years ago.
This tiny battle-site-gone-village was one of the most famous places in the world, toured by visitors from every nation during the summer months. Sokka and Toph avoided it like the rooster-cow flu. Whenever duty called for the Avatar to attend a gathering or ceremony there, Toph and Sokka stayed behind to take care of the house—which was code for "lay around and play on the modified Pai Sho board Sokka had carved to suit the blind Earthbender and himself". Before Suki moved back to Kyoshi Island for good, she would join them in traveling back and forth to newly-found Republic City, sometimes helping them train Toph's Metalbending students. In the years that followed, Toph and Sokka took on this venture alone.
Apparently their absence at the historical site had been noticed, however. Whereas the appearance of the duo complementary to Aang and Katara was always assumed rather than spoken (and thus quite easy to ignore), this year Toph and Sokka's names had been explicitly detailed on the invitation. Toph had known it would only be a matter of time before they had to return, even if Sokka had silently convinced himself that he would never go again. She also knew that, for all of her talent in repressing bothersome emotions, there would be repercussions. The nightmares of fire and falling to her death, the crack of Sokka's bone against the metal airship, all returned in grand detail.
Well before sunrise on the third day, Toph awoke in the cottage they were calling home for their stay. Out of habit, she stuck out a hand and placed it palm-down against the floor. The life signs of her family thrummed up from the ground to meet her. Aang and Katara were snuggled up together in their room, chests rising and falling in sleep. Appa and Momo were outside in the covered shed. Sokka… she paused in an effort to place him upon realizing that his sleeping mat lay barren… standing alone at the brim of the shore. Toph scrambled up from her bed and slipped soundlessly outside.
The sea was calm tonight. The waves did not roar and crash but lulled a lazy rhythm into the sand. Sokka was up to his chest by the time she reached him, his tunic and boots abandoned in a pile. Though summer was drawing nearer, the bitter-cold water still chased her away from the edge.
He heard her voice but did not turn. For a moment Sokka thought that the sound was of his mind's own creation. It was strange that Toph should appear just now, just as he was thinking of her; he had been startled from sleep by a vivid nightmare of the comet's arrival, as if being in such close contact to the place for the first time since the end of the war had sparked in him the terror he had felt then. And so he had waded into the inky water, gasping and choking, to find some serenity. There was Toph's weight on his arm, dangling over death below, his own strength shocking to the both of them. His shoulders cramped with the strain of it, his leg groaning even now, even at peace. His arms dangled by his sides, drifted back and forth with the cycle's push and pull. The cold stung him into an ebbing numbness. Sokka waded in sodden shorts before the full moon, open to her judgment and begging for advice.
Saving Toph's life had been the most important thing to him five summers ago near this very spot. What purpose was dearest to him now? Sokka stood motionless, letting the swells break across his shoulders. Beads of water flew through the air like shards of broken glass in the moonlight.
Back on solid shore, Toph called his name again. Sokka turned to find her alone and blank-faced. She waited with the tips of her toes at the low tide line, stepping back every time the water's hem tried to reach her. Tonight, a distinct chill rolled in off the ocean breeze.
"What're you doing?" she shouted.
"I'm okay," he said in reply.
"You're not gonna be okay once you get sick and I have to sit through tomorrow's meeting without you."
Toph's jaw was set in a hard line, but her eyes held something else. Not wholly concern, though concern was there too. The moonlight pressed up against Sokka's back, urging him forward with a wave's turn. He had asked Her for guidance and She had answered with enthusiasm. If years of back-and-forth banter and unconditional camaraderie were never going to be enough, then now was time to ask for more.
Sokka paused, blinked the seawater out of his eyes, and said, "Come out here with me."
Toph could generally trust him around the water, enough for her to get in up to her knees if he stuck close by. He'd given up on teaching her to swim after their last effort resulted in a black eye, when Toph thought she was drowning and punched him in the face while trying to save herself. The suggestion that she would put even a toe into this giant ice pond in the dark with no Waterbenders to save them from the inevitable giant tidal wave… Toph actually laughed.
"Not happening, Snoozles! Just get back here so I can go to sleep."
"I mean it, Toph. You'll feel better," said Sokka.
"I feel fine, thank—" She broke off upon realizing that Sokka had started trudging back to the shore. Even with her sandy vision, she could tell he was making a beeline for her and not for his pile of clothing. Toph took a few steps back to equal the distance he had progressed, like she couldn't simply blast him to the moon if he tried to drag her in.
Sokka extended an arm, palm open as if she could grasp it from such a distance. Her chance to take him or leave him, definitively, had finally come. It had only cost him five years to figure it out. "Just trust me."
Toph wanted to tell him that she did trust him, more than she had ever trusted anyone in her life, but water was water and she was going to sink straight to the bottom if she somehow got in over her head. Yet somehow, without granting her legs formal permission, she took a step forward. And another. The water was so cold that she almost drew back from the shock of it, but Toph nevertheless shuffled in to her knees before the panic attack could set in. Sokka waited until she was up to her hips to rescue her from her internal struggle, meeting her halfway and taking her hand. When he tugged, she resisted just an inch before she gave way and let him pull her deeper. She tensed as the cold seeped into her clothes, anticipating that he might drag her out even farther. Instead, Toph was equally startled when he settled down in front of her and grasped both her hands in his. He rocked from side to side with each wave, riding it instead of fighting it, bringing Toph along with him in the cycle.
After a pause, he asked, "You okay?"
"You're the one who wandered out for a midnight dip," said Toph, breathlessly. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. This place, though…"
"I know. I feel it too."
The motion that followed was of neither Toph nor Sokka's creation, but a combination of tiny gestures adding up into one big step. Her knees bent and he followed, strung along by her tight grasp on his hands. Sokka inched forward, Toph sought his shoulders. And what was perhaps originally intended to be a hug morphed into an arrangement that neither of them could rightly explain.
They had seen Aang and Katara do this before. Sometimes when the day was lazy and the sun hot, the two of them headed down to the sea for Waterbending practice and wound up here instead. Aang would crouch down in the water, Katara sitting herself lightly on his knees, locking her ankles together behind him and her arms around his neck. They could stay there for as long as they could spare, weightless and close, talking just out of her earshot in smiling whispers. It had always looked like a cozy place to Toph. As it so happened, she was right.
There wasn't much to it but a profound intimacy. She had clung to Sokka's waist before, whether on Appa or when walking over wooden surfaces, but the weight of his hands on her hips—fingers laced together at the small of her back, pressing just enough to keep her from floating into the current—was so foreign that she was not quite sure how to deal with it. So instead of staring blindly down at the gap between them while he studied her expression, Toph tightened her grip, scooted closer, and set her chin on his shoulder. She gave way to her fear of drowning and let Sokka anchor them both, just as he had when she was swinging free from the airship and he refused to let her go.
For some time they said nothing at all. Toph, half of whose brain had begun to dance the chamelephant strut, bit back the obvious question. Of course, now that they were here, they would have to address this interesting turn at some point, preferably before things became awkward. But the time was not now. They drifted in place.
Sokka cleared his throat with a little cough that ran all the way up Toph's chest. "Did I ever tell you," he began, "that I used to hate the ocean?"
"Sokka—" he tensed at the sound of his name. Toph shifted her hands to his shoulders in preparation to pull back, but reconsidered and wrapped her arms around his midsection instead. She shivered as a larger wave lapped up against the nape of her neck. "You can't hate the ocean. You're Water Tribe!"
"Well I did. For a very long time."
"Because Katara was a Bender and I wasn't." When Toph offered no reply, Sokka sighed and continued on. "I'm still a little fuzzy on how all that stuff works, but I'm pretty sure it's not just passed down in families. There's something else to it. When Katara turned out to be a Waterbender, I thought maybe I wasn't good enough. The spirits skipped over me."
Toph said nothing. Having teased Sokka for being so ordinary on many occasions, especially early on in her adjustment to the real world and real friendships, she felt for him a sentiment that was neither pity nor guilt. She had been skeptical at first, given her great talent and her resulting capacity for strength—without Bending, she was only blind and rash. Witty but otherwise unremarkable. She had always assumed that this logic held true for everyone else who wasn't lucky enough to be able to chuck boulders around. The war had changed her. Sokka, in his constant self-improvement and the occasional identity crisis of being a non-Bender in a Bender's war, had changed her.
"It took a really long time for me to figure out my destiny," he said. "The men of my tribe were great enough warriors without me. The women had me play soldier off by myself because I was in the way. Katara had this amazing talent and I… was useless."
A little laugh escaped from Toph, unprompted, dropping her out of his monologue and back into her own body. She became acutely aware of the familiar smell of his skin beneath the salty layer. Her thumb was drawing circles around the ridge of his lower spine.
"Yeah, you laugh now," said Sokka, with the light air of one telling a joke. "Things got better after I learned from Piandao, but for a while I couldn't see myself making it out of the war. Being the Plan Guy was helpful, but not if I had to rely on others to protect me."
"Well, I can't say I'm not grateful that you learned, but even so. Fighting skills only take you so far." Toph shrugged. "I'd be dead if you weren't exactly you."
The grumbling ocean filled another pause. He had told her once, while lying on his bed with his broken leg propped up and his body flushed with fever, that they shouldn't be alive. Their narrow escape from drowning was not of their own genius, but largely of chance. She had responded that she was okay with that. She said they must use their luck to make a tangible difference in the world, and they had. But the troubling thought lingered, creeping up on them when they least expected the intrusion, and now…
"So when did you change your mind?"
"You mean about the ocean?" Her chin pressed into his shoulder as she nodded, her black hair brushing side of his face. "It's much a part of me as it ever was. I just had to figure out my destiny."
"But the war's over, and the Harmony Restoration Movement is finally under control," Toph said. She hoped that he couldn't feel her heart like she could feel his, thrumming just a touch above average, ringing back into every one of her limbs like a ripple in her mind's perfect eye. He probably could. It didn't matter now anyway, given what she had just made up her mind to do. "So what's your destiny now?"
She pulled back from their hug when Sokka let the quiet ring a moment too long. Her arm sidled around his shoulder, his neck a perfect fit for the crook of her elbow.
"Well, I guess…" Sokka began, and she knew by his tone that a tiny smirk had ticked up in the corner of his mouth. He was studying her flushed face, the apprehensive line of her lips. Unconsciously she braced herself against his sturdy frame, her frozen hands lying flat against the base of his spine. "I guess it's up for grabs."
His words tightened her chest in a way the creeping chill of the sea could never have done. For a moment she could only wait until her heart had burned through it, thawed out the tiny dash of hope that she had long since tucked away. Toph felt something snap inside of her—self-control or inhibition, she did not know which went first—and all the years spent persuading herself against him were drowned by his one simple statement.
Toph could not smile. The rhythmic rumble of breaking waves urged her forward, yes, now, go, but she could not smile. As if the shock of his implication were not enough to hold her suspended in place, the muscles in her face were rigid with cold. Her fingers ached with stiffness. She brought them up to frame his face.
Luckily, his mouth was very warm.
This kiss was not like the others in Toph's life. It was not the chaste and timid peck of her inexperienced first, nor was it the frantic spark of many nights that followed. Kissing Sokka was not the strike of the match, but the drip of candle wax that melted in its light—slow like ice but hot, hot like molten earth seeping into their frozen bodies until these spring waves might be of summer's end. Her terror of drowning flowed off with the rip tide.
For the longest instant of her life, they were not a brazen teen and her accomplice with the bum knee, not lucky favorites of circumstance. The tide pushed and pulled them in their place, bobbing up and into their faces before lulling back down across their chests. Toph was blind and weightless, rooted in the safe space of his lap. Sokka was patient, drawing the kiss longer, tugging her closer, daring the waves to squeeze between them. Toph cradled his head between her palms, waded deeper into the warmth and briny ocean taste—
And when they broke, it was only when stolen breaths could not sustain them. They gasped and paused and went back for more and stalled halfway. Sokka's forehead fell to meet hers instead. Toph grazed her thumb along the bow of his lips. Maybe they had fallen here after all. Maybe the airship's platform had snapped and sent them both hurdling down to where they could be washed away, and all this time they were simply waiting to re-emerge. Maybe they spent the last five years trying to convince themselves that they didn't need air, until their heads broke the surface and they realized that they could breathe for the first time.
Whatever the case, it was clear that neither Toph nor Sokka would need much time to adjust. It was just a side effect of the fall she never fell, of the grip that kept them together when by right they should have broken.
But these thoughts were only fleeting, chased away by Sokka and his kiss's return. Toph let them ebb with the tide and dissolve into salty ocean spray.
"And when the day arrives,
I'll become the sky,
and I'll become the sea,
and the sea will come to kiss me,
for I am going home." – Trent Reznor, "La Mer"