Katara noticed that, over the rest of their journey south, Sokka was oddly attentive to Toph and what she did.
Sometimes it was normal; he'd notice her as he had always noticed her, talking and laughing with her like they'd always done and then go on about his business. But then sometimes he'd seem a little overprotective or a little too attached to her side. When they stopped off in a rundown village he was normal the entire stay. But then, when they checked into an inn in the next town over, he'd barely let her out of his sight. Sometimes he'd hoard her attention and other times he'd be less clingy. At breakfast she'd catch him staring at her for minutes at a time. At dinner he'd be so absorbed in laughing with Aang he'd barely look at her.
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was something. Maybe it was just her imagination, though it probably wasn't.
Because, at one point, she had gotten into the strangest argument with Sokka about Toph. They had been talking about the council meetings back in the Earth King's Palace, and apart from complaining about how the city hadn't changed since the end of the war, Katara had brought into light the effect the city life had on their friend.
"At least the right point of view gets a voice on their board," she said optimistically. They were in the gardens of the inn during late afternoon. Aang was visiting with the benefactor of the town while Toph had gone off on her own to explore. The brother and sister had stayed behind, Katara relaxing in the sun while Sokka went about sharpening and cleaning his boomerang.
"A lot of good that does, since the old geezers barely listen to her," he had replied.
"True." She was lying in the grass and flipped onto her stomach, staring at a snapdragon and blowing on it. "The biggest surprise for me was seeing her so dressed up, though." She smiled. "She's so pretty in her formal attire for all the events and whatnot. It suits her, to a certain degree." But Sokka had disagreed, not once looking up from his work.
"No, she doesn't belong at fancy parties and council meetings. It doesn't suit her at all. And those dresses are not for Toph. They make her look weird."
"What are you talking about?" Katara asked, surprised. "She looked beautiful at the ball in Ba Sing Se." Her brother only made a face and shrugged.
"Just because she's wearing a silk dress doesn't make her beautiful. She looked nice, at most."
That had been a strange answer to her. "You are such a pig, Sokka. Toph looked amazing at the ball."
He glanced at his sister through narrowed eyes, annoyed at her condescending tone and assumption to his ignorance. "Toph was wearing a shiny curtain for stuck-up people--,"
"She looked amazing--,"
"No, she didn't," he snapped, almost raising his voice. "Have you seen her after she's been training? Or even fighting? Have you seen the way she looks then?"
Katara shrugged, bringing up Toph in her memories of the war. She looked as all of them had looked: run down, tired, grimy and frazzled. "She looks…"
"She looks like she's glowing."
Katara blinked. Her brother wasn't looking at her anymore but was lost in thought with cleaning his boomerang, his eyes trained on polishing the edge meticulously as he spoke. "It's like…her eyes are shining, and her smile is nothing compared to those plastered grins she puts on for fat politicians. Toph on a battlefield is amazing. Toph in a ballroom is as un-amazing as you can get." Then he was silent.
Katara hadn't known where that had come from, and judging by his closed of countenance, he wasn't going to voluntarily explain his reasons. So she said, with sincerity, "you're right."
He paused in his cleaning, looked at her with distant eyes and grinned a detached grinned. "Good to hear you admit it once in a while."
"Yeah," she breathed. Then, "hey, Sokka, I wanted to ask you about--,"
The two siblings had turned then to see Aang walking towards them, out of his traditional garb and back into his comfortable robes. Momo glided off his shoulder and over to Sokka while the Avatar himself sat down in the grass next to Katara. She smiled at him, (because she was glad to see him, of course), but she knew her chance to speak with her brother was gone. He was often touchy about certain things, and she knew he'd be wary to say anything in front of Aang for fear of it simply being heard.
So she let it go.
It was easy for her, in some ways.
And in other ways it was the hardest thing she'd ever had to do…
…to hide how she felt and show that how things were was exactly what she wanted.
Easy, hard, easy, hard. There really wasn't a line between the two anymore.
It was strange though. When they'd hold hands or knock elbows or poke at one another it was easy. But when he'd sit next to her, his shoulder close enough that she could feel the heat from his skin yet far enough that they weren't touching, she found it hard. When he'd make jokes it was easy. When they'd have serious conversations it was hard. When he was ignoring her it was easy. When he was hovering over her it was easy. When he ignored her it was hard. When he hovered over her it was hard.
No line between the two whatsoever.
She wondered a million times how he couldn't see, and then thanked everything that he was so much more blind than she.
They got into a skirmish as they neared the rumored rebel camps.
In a swampland in the deep south they were attacked by a group of ruffians passing off as veteran deserters of the Fire Nation Army. This was ludicrous though, because the group was made up of only ten or eleven youths no older than Sokka. If anything they were action-starved sons of captains and generals who only wanted their taste of combat. But, despite all their lack of experience, they were young and able and that made the fight last longer than anticipated.
At the moment Katara was dealing with two of the rebels and Aang had four. Sokka was locked in one on one combat with a skilled naginata fighter, which left Toph with the rest.
Which was fine by her.
She stepped back, felt the pounding footsteps charge at her from behind, and then she pivoted, her flat palm thrusting outward accompanied by a wave of earth. The hit was true and there was a satisfying grunt of pain from the punk, but no time to listen, because she was thrusting downward, rising on a column of solid rock, out of range from the arrows coming from her left. A stomp and then a punch, take out the sniper, keep Katara and Sokka covered, Aang's far enough to be safe. Weapons flying, sounds swishing past her ears, cries of the enemy and her comrades. It might have been chaotic, but she was born for this. She knew how to decipher friend from foe and pick out the sounds that needed attention. Slice down, shove to the right, throw up a barrier to her back, split a ditch with her heel, a fist to this guy's chin because he was too close, a few boulders in Aang's direction so he wouldn't have to bother with switching into earthbending mode to pull out a sizable chunk, and then back to the ditch to close it up again. Left, left, left, right, right, left, back,…hit, throw, stop, wait, throw, slam and smash. A brutal dance, and her favorite kind.
The cry had come too late. Hot air blew forcibly at her from behind, catching her completely off guard. But the air wasn't just hot, it was scorching, and tangible. It burned. It cracked. It was fire. Someone was firebending and she hated firebending. Firebending caught her off guard the most.
With a cry she swung her arm around in a giant sweep, pulling out a massive portion of earth and hurling it in the direction of the fire. The sound of flames sputtering out and an anguished yell met the action. There was a thud. She hoped that whoever her attacker had been was dully surprised.
The earth beneath her feet shook, there was the sound of an explosion and then she was slapped in the face with a fantastic wave of air. When it finally passed it dumped her tousled hair in her face and left her coughing and gasping.
"Aang? Aang!" It was Katara. She was close by and Toph staggered over to her, cradling her stinging arm.
"What happened?" she asked dryly.
"I don't know. He moved out of my sight, so I don't know what he just did. The fighting's over though."
"I know." Toph grinned a toothy grin. "I totally won my match."
"Me too," came the coy reply. But then Katara noticed her arm. "Toph, you're burned!"
"I noticed," she drawled, unable to make it into a joke. She winced though as she tried to lift her arm. "Is it bad?" Gentle fingers touched her shoulder and carefully peeled away the tattered parts of her tunic.
"Not as bad as it could have been. It destroyed your clothes."
"They're just clothes." Even though this was her favorite tunic. "Do something, it's starting to sting."
"Okay, hold still."
Cold was instantly draped over the wound and Toph could feel the tingle of the water as it seeped into her skin, rejuvenating the tissue and sweeping away the dead cells, calling for new ones.
"Hey!" Sokka had come to join them, the sound of his blade sliding into its sheath. "Everything okay over here? Toph, did that fire blast hit you?"
"Yeah, but I'm fine." Katara finished with her work and the younger girl rolled her shoulder around, testing it out. Her muscles were a little tight in the area and her skin was a little itchy, but she was good as new again. "Thanks Katara."
"Of course. Did you see where Aang went?' Katara asked her brother. He jerked his head back.
"Down into the valley."
"I'm going to check on him. Don't move that arm too much, Toph. The new skin needs to have time to breathe," she called, running to check on the Avatar.
"Fine," she grumbled, lowering her shoulder. She turned in the direction of Sokka. "Did you win?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry about that firebender. I saw him sooner but that spear just wouldn't let up on me--,"
"It's okay," she said, dragging her sleeve across her drenched brow. "I'm fine. It was fine. I got him."
"I know. I saw. Your shoulder's really red."
"Still?" She reached up a tender hand to the area and realized almost the entire right side of her tunic, from her collar to her sleeve, had been singed away. Her new healed skin was just starting to feel the air and wind. "That's real nice," she grumbled, her fingers touching the charred edges of the fabric. Far be it for her to ever swoon over clothing, but this had been woven cotton and it had fit her perfectly.
"I'll buy you something new in the next town," Sokka offered. She shook her head morosely.
"Stupid kids. The war finally ends and what's the first thing they want to do? More fighting."
"You love fighting."
"Yeah, but that's me. I'm the exception," she crooned. "I'm special."
"So how did you get away from the spear guy? Did you take your sword and--…" she trailed off, her brow creasing, her expression darkening. Sokka frowned, waiting.
"Is that…?" But she didn't have time to finish her question, because it was. "Look out!" She launched herself at him, using her entire body to throw him aside and out of the way of the flying spear aimed for his back. He cried and tumbled to the ground, Toph crashing down beside him. There was a twang as the eighteen inch, curved blade of the spear embedded itself into the ground behind them, its wooden stem shivering on impact. Sokka stared at it in disbelief, adrenaline simmering in his veins.
"I thought I had knocked him out. Thanks Toph, that was close." But then he looked at her, saw her sprawled out next to him, and realized it had been too close. "Toph? Toph!"
"Ow," she said viciously, darkly, angrily. For all the blood that now soaked her shirt it was remarkable at how calm her voice was, and how much venom she was able to ingest in it. "That. Hurt."
"You're bleeding, you're bleeding!" In most cases a Sokka- induced panic would seem comedic and hysterical beyond comprehension. But fear sobered his mayhem, turning it into heart-wrenching concern. "Toph! Toph, where are you hurt?" She winced and tried pushing herself to her hands, involuntarily crying out at the movement. "Don't do that by yourself!" He scrambled behind her, taking her weight into his arms, letting her lean heavily against him.
"I think it's my side," she forced out, her breathing growing shallow and fast. She grimaced again, her hand squeezing his knees. "Damn it, the stupid thing grazed me in the side."
"Katara!" He turned over his shoulder, bellowing his sister's name. He didn't dare leave her side. "Katara! Get over here! Toph's hurt, badly!"
"Stop, stop it," she moaned. "You're rocking too much."
"Sorry, sorry." He reached around her tenderly, leaning over her shoulder to examine the wound. "I'm going to lift your shirt, okay? It might hurt…some of the frayed threads are in there…"
"I will." He reached for the fabric and lifted. The wound was bad. "KATARA, GET OVER HERE!"
"Sokka, I'm getting dizzy," she said, the calm of her voice tainted by the feebleness of it. He hated the way she sounded.
"You're losing a lot of blood." He untangled his arms from her, tore off a piece of his own tunic and then wrapped it around his hand. "I'm going to have to press down to lessen the blood flow."
Carefully he wrapped one arm under hers and the other over her shoulder before placing both hands above the slash and then gently, but firmly, pressing into her side. She flinched and gripped on tighter to his knees.
"Sorry," he mumbled again, guilty that he had just added to her pain.
"Okay, I'm not going into shock," she grunted through clenched teeth, shaking her head and squeezing her eyes shut. "This hurts. This hurts so much right now. Katara!" Sokka glanced over his shoulder and saw his sister and Aang running towards them.
"She's coming. You're going to be okay."
"Good." A wave of pain hit her then and a strangled cry escaped her. "Ah…geez, and I thought the firebender was going to be trouble." She sucked in a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. Sokka kept a firm hold on her side, adamant in stemming the flow.
"She's coming, she's coming," he repeated. "You're going to be okay."
And she was okay.
It had taken half an hour of uninterrupted work on Katara's part, but right then and there she was able to stop the blood flow and mend over the seven-inch long gash in Toph's side. During that time Aang had been able to gather together the rebels and restrain them, leaving them tied to a tree.
"We can come back for them later," he said when he returned to the group. "Right now we need to get her somewhere safe where she can rest."
Toph had been too pale and disoriented to walk, so Sokka had carried her onto Appa's saddle and all of them had taken off for the nearest village.
"How is it now?" Katara asked, running her water over the wound once more. Toph sucked in a quick breath but then relaxed immediately after, relaxing her grip on Sokka's leg. She was still using him as a recliner, her back against his chest, his heartbeat in her shoulders.
"Better. Much better."
"Good," Aang said. He was standing atop Appa's head, bending the air around them into a tight sphere so that the gusts of wind wouldn't interfere with Katara's work. "Do you still have a headache?"
"A little," she admitted. "But that's probably just from the blood loss."
"It is," the older girl confirmed, returning her element to its pouch. "You'll probably pass out in a few seconds."
"I'll wake up though if I do, right?" Toph asked, half-jokingly.
"You'll wake up." It was Sokka who had replied with not an ounce of humor in his tone.
"All right. Just checking. Can I lie down?"
"No, don't move," Katara said, resting her hands gently on her shoulders to keep her still. "I don't want to risk moving you just yet; I want to wait until we absolutely have to, when we get to the village."
"I don't mind," Sokka reassured them seriously. He placed a calm hand on her forehead, letting her rest her head against his shoulder. "Go ahead and sleep, if you need to."
"Ugh, I feel pathetic," she groaned, leaning back. "Why, of all people, did I have to be the bird with the broken wing?"
"Because you're the only one tough enough to take it?" Aang offered with a lilt. Toph laughed lightly.
"Because you just wanted us to fawn all over you and whisk you away to a nice suite in a nice village?" Katara suggested with a grin. Toph laughed lightly.
"Because you were being a stupid hero," Sokka said, deadpan. Everyone was silent at that. No one could deny the guilt dripping from his words, and no one wanted to address it.
While she slept she had a dream.
And the dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
Someone was chasing her and she was running on ice, unable to see and frozen to the bone. She called out for help but no one came, and when stopped to meet whoever was following her, the ice broke and she fell through.
The imaginary shock of cold water pulled her out of slumber. She shot bolt upright, eyes flying open and her mouth wide in a scream. Her fingers gripped her soft blanket and her loose hair fell into her face.
"Toph! Toph, calm down! You're okay." Comforting hands reached out for her wrists and she instantly calmed down, her shoulders sagging with the weight as she turned to her companion. Katara's voice flowed over her and Toph was never so grateful to hear her so near.
"We're at an inn," the waterbender explained, propping the pillows up so Toph could lean comfortably against the wall. "You slept the whole time. Sokka carried you in here and I've been tending to your side. You've been out for hours."
"What time is it?"
"Almost midnight. Hungry?"
Katara reached over and placed a bowl in her hands. Toph raised the rim to her lips and drank in earnest. It was only warm broth and vegetables, but it was bliss to a growling stomach and a healing body.
When she finally lowered the bowl it was less than half empty and she was feeling more than halfway revived. She sighed and touched her side. It was healed save for a thin, bumpy line where the flesh was still mending together.
"Where's Aang?" she asked.
"He took two of the village prefect officers back to where the rebels were. He didn't want to leave them tied to a tree overnight."
Toph wrinkled her nose disapprovingly. "They deserved it." Katara laughed.
"I completely agree with you."
"But he's way too nice for his own good."
"I completely agree with that too."
A short silence followed this question before a low, grumbled reply came to her from the far corner of the room. "Right here."
Toph jumped, genuinely surprised. Her feet weren't anywhere on the floor, so she hadn't been able to see him, but she hadn't heard him or sensed him either, which only gave a credit to the depth of her sleeping and her drained ability to gather herself after waking up.
"Sheesh, you scared me," she said truthfully, clutching at her chest. "What are you doing skulking in the corner?"
"What do you think?" was the bland reply, borderline agitated. "I feel bad about what happened." She was surprised to hear her own bluntness coming from him.
"Well, you shouldn't," she snapped back. He grunted, sounding more like Appa than a person.
"No, I should. That spear got you instead of me."
"It shouldn't have gotten either of us, actually," she answered, "but it was a curved blade, so its flight path was weird. It's not your fault or my fault that it was a curved blade."
She heard his feet hit the floor and his chair squeak as he leaned forward. She hadn't known he'd been curled up in a ball, waiting for her to wake up.
"I was the one fighting that guy. I should have taken care of him so that he wouldn't have had a chance to strike again."
"Well…." She shrugged. "It's a mistake. We all make mistakes."
"This was a dangerous mistake."
"It's fine. Katara was around so it's fine."
"Katara won't always be around."
"Sokka, calm down," his sister said, getting up from her seat and taking a step towards her brother. He ignored her.
"You shouldn't have done it," he blurted. "You shouldn't have done something so brash." Toph's eyebrows shot up and her jaw clenched in a challenge.
"Whoa, wait a minute, brash? Is that you blaming me now?"
"Y-yes." He had hesitated, and that meant he was just fighting to fight. But she wasn't in the mood, and so she took it to offense.
"All right, calling me a stupid hero before was a little funny. Calling me a stupid hero now is making you a jerk--,"
"You purposely put yourself in danger for a stupid reason, Toph," he flared, getting to his own feet. "You didn't have to do anything, you could have just called it out to me."
"Stop it, Sokka," Katara commanded. He ignored her still, but judging by her tone it was only a matter of moments before she'd make him listen.
"It was too late," Toph yelled back, although she wasn't so much angry as she was surprised that they were even having this argument. "You would have had about half a second to move, and the blade was curved, Sokka. You would have gotten a bigger cut than mine."
"I would have been able to handle it," he spat back. "Katara's around, remember?"
"Oh, right," Toph huffed. "The big warrior man would have taken it better than the feeble little girl, right?"
"Talk about chauvinistic."
"Stop it, you know that's not what I mean--,"
"Because that's what I sounds like to me."
"Toph, don't get up. Just don't listen to anything he has to say," the waterbender insisted. Sokka strode across the room and ducked around his sister, hovering at the foot of the bed.
"You don't have to protect me!" he cried. Toph pushed back against her pillows and slammed her bowl down on the bedside table, making sure every movement she took expressed undiluted anger despite the dull ache in her side.
"Well don't worry, I fully regret it now, so it won't happen in the future!" she yelled back.
"You're an insane person."
He couldn't ignore that. The two bickering friends went silent and Katara grabbed her brother and shoved him towards the door, yanking it open with too much force. "Go and wait for me outside," she said, shoving him out into the hall. Before he could turn and protest she slammed the door in his face. She stood there for a moment, not moving.
A hollow pause filled the room. And then Katara said, "You know why that happened, don't you?"
Toph nodded, rolling her bright eyes, immediately calming down. "Yeah, I do."
Katara blew out a breath. "He's stupid…I'm sorry. I'm going to talk to him. You need to stay in bed and rest."
She wasn't going to argue with an angered Katara. "All right. I will."
And she did.
Katara strode out into the courtyard where she found Sokka hastily pacing back and forth, his hands clenched into stiff fists at his sides. He looked up when she approached him and instantly backed away from her.
"Don't yell at me again."
"Too late; what in the world were you thinking?!" she demanded, looming towards him and waggling her finger of authority. The normal Katara would have probably kept her voice low at such a late hour, but this angered and bewildered Katara threw normal manners and courtesy out the window. "If you cared anything—anything—about her and her well-being then you would have never even thought to divulge your bad feelings on her when she's still trying to heal!"
"Stop it, Katara. Don't throw your motherly logic at me this time, because I'm not going to deal with it," he said, shaking his head. "You don't have to talk this out with me. You can go back inside and I promise to stay out here and cool off like a good boy."
"Excuse me, what?" He had turned away from her and she reached out, yanking him back around by the shoulder. He let her because he had always let her, but he didn't hide the clench in his jaw or the venom in his stare.
"No," she said firmly. "You do not get to act like this because you are a fool, Sokka. A fool. What you just pulled was idiotic, and we both know you are not an idiot."
"Katara, just leave me alone."
"I know why you did it."
He closed his mouth then and simply stared at her. She breathed in deeply through her nose and blinked.
"You do?" he asked quietly.
"We both do."
"Really." He didn't sound convinced.
"We know you feel guilty about not taking care of your fighter. But you fought with Toph because when you saw the firebender ready to attack her all you could do was call out her name, and when she heard the spear she was able to act upon it and save you. You feel guilty in more ways than one. We both know that." The paling of his face and the tightening of his straining hands said what he refused to say.
Yes, that's the truth. I failed in my chance to protect her and she succeeded in her chance to protect me. I feel pathetic and I caused her pain. I am horrible.
But he didn't say it out loud. Instead he turned on his heel and strode away, out of the courtyard through the arched gate.
"Sokka? Where are you going?" his sister demanded. But he only waved a dismissive hand over his head and then broke into a run so she wouldn't follow him.