Ending With A Whisper
Toph couldn't really explain how she felt when she bended earth. For her, it was as natural as breathing and just as easy. There were more things in her life that were unnatural and so she appreciated what came to her without much thought or effort. She remembered that when she first realized she could guide the earth beneath and around her she'd felt an indescribable rightness in it. She was meant to be an Earthbender as surely as she was born and she basked in that knowledge. She had used to it to teach herself what she needed to know in order to fulfill her destiny.
Strangely enough, she thought of loving him in the same terms as she did earthbending.
It had occurred to her at some point during their journeys that she'd come to look at him as a source of strength though the most he could bend was their dinner or his boomerang. She would start to listen for his return when he was gone, had started to hurt when his eye went wandering, as it inevitably did, and had begun to have a need for his touch that went beyond the shoves they occasionally exchanged or the friendly arm he'd put across her shoulders.
When the war ended and they had gone their separate ways, leaving him had been as painful as ripping off her own arm but she hadn't been able to find the words, hadn't been brave enough to tell him what was in her heart even though she'd managed to face down an entire battalion of Firebenders without blinking. She'd thought she could forget and that her heart would cool but whenever she'd believed herself done with him, he'd send something: a short letter, postcard, or a quirky gift from the South Pole that would have her out in the training grounds, flinging rocks as far as she could, raising pillars as high as she could. It was as if he'd known she was moving away and he had to pull her back in.
So that was where she was now—a pale, powerful form in the center of a maelstrom of rocks and pillars. Tears fell, for the first time in a long time, ignored down her cheeks as she took in one shaky breath after another. She heard him coming, felt him the second he put his foot down outside the doors of her home, and without thinking, she raised a wall between him and her.
"Toph," Sokka called out, one hand out in case a rock found him. "Toph, could you stop that for a second?"
"Go away," she yelled. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
"I think the guy on the other side of the village can see you're busy. I want to talk to you."
"Since when did I have to do what you say, Snoozles?"
"Been a while since I've heard that," Sokka muttered under his breath, but she heard him clearly.
"Go away!" Toph yelled again and this time she couldn't stop her voice from breaking.
"Toph..." Sokka started, surprised. "No, I'm not going away. You have to tell me why you're like this. I'm gonna wait right here until you're done. I'm gonna risk my life here, so keep that in mind."
And he sat down on the other side of her wall.
Startled, Toph turned in his direction. One by one, the rocks she'd been juggling in the air fell to the ground. The dust began to settle when she held out one hand, curled it into a fist and flicked her wrist. The ground swallowed the wall he was leaning against and Sokka fell backwards in a heap. He cursed out of sheer surprise.
"What do you want?" she demanded, swiping at her face.
She could hear Sokka getting up and brushing himself off. When she was sure she was close enough for him to see, his movements stuttered to a halt.
"You've been crying," he said, disbelieving and with a note of fear that she normally heard whenever he thought he'd lost his boomerang.
"Why are you crying?"
"I dropped a rock on my foot," she snarled sarcastically.
He started to walk towards her but she took a step back and held out a hand. Panic squeezed the breath out of her.
"No, don't come closer," she warned. "Not now, Sokka."
"I don't understand..."
"When did you ever?" she exclaimed. "You're too busy chasing skirts or tweaking some design for a water-powered sled. You never understood and you never will."
He let out a sound of frustration and for lack of anything else to do, he stomped a foot on the ground.
"Women," he cried. "Yeah, I probably will never understand the lot of you, but out of all of them, I thought you were the one that made the most sense, Toph. You're practically a..."
"Don't you dare say it," Toph screamed and a pillar erupted dangerously close to where Sokka stood. "Don't you even try to say it!"
"Okay, okay," Sokka said, stepping backwards. "What's gotten you so riled up? Katara said you'd nearly beaned her with a bowl when the jeweler came by with a package. I gotta tell you, Toph, she's not too happy with you right now because this is the first vacation she's had in years and the last thing she expected was earthenware being hurled at her. It's a good thing she's faster than she looks. Your dish set is one bowl short but she could have also been one head short. Did you have something against the jeweler? Did he wrong your family or something?"
"No," she replied between gritted teeth.
"Then what did he do? Did he forget to take his shoes off?" he persisted, sounding incredibly confused now.
"Tell me about the necklace you had made," Toph said, her voice now dangerously low.
Sokka was silent. She heard his heart beating faster and faster, almost racing, with each passing second. As she waited for his answer, her hands curled into fists and her feet were braced as if she was preparing for a fight. In a way, she was. This was it.
"Our mom's necklace is getting worn out and I wanted a copy made in case the design gets rubbed off before we can find a carver good enough to repair it," he answered quietly.
Toph didn't even have the strength to open the ground up beneath her so that it could swallow her whole and end her misery. She was speechless, immovable, and mortified beyond belief. Now it was her turn to stay silent, the words that could save her dignity dying before they could reach her lips.
"In any case, giving betrothal necklaces is more a custom of the Northern Water Tribe," he went on to explain matter-of-factly. "I'm more of a gold ring man."
"I didn't know that," she said flatly.
"Yeah, well, it's not like I've ever come close to asking anyone to join the family."
"Great. I'm gonna go now."
She turned to leave and managed to take three steps before Sokka had her arm in a grip like iron.
"Toph," he said carefully, his voice like a warm slide into oblivion. "Why would you be so upset about me having a necklace made?"
"It wasn't the necklace," she said, struggling against his hold but to no avail. "It was the jeweler. He stepped on my toe once and..." she sputtered, faltered.
Her throat closed up and she tried again to free herself from his grip, but he wasn't letting go. She couldn't take it. Her heart couldn't take it anymore.
"Please, just let me go," Toph said, her voice barely above a whisper. "If you care about me at all, just let me go, Sokka. Please."
Sokka loosened his hold but didn't let go. Toph couldn't stop the tears from falling and was about to smash a rock into him, but then he tugged her closer to him until she brushed up against him. She didn't tilt her face up to him, didn't have to, so he put a hand against her cheek, and tilted her face for her. Even though she was a tall woman, he was still taller.
The press of his lips against hers was gentle, seeking. Her eyes closed of their own accord but her arms went around his neck out of hers. He tasted of cool water and promises she made to herself to one day get here. He let go of her arm, his hand coming to rest on the middle of her back and pressing her even closer.
She didn't know how long he held her or how long she'd let herself be held, but when they parted, it occurred to her that kissing him had been easier than saying anything. When he didn't move away from her, when his heartbeat didn't slow, and when the hand he still had on her cheek caressed, she finally allowed herself a smile.
"So...that's why," he said quietly, pulling her close again.