The others had already gone to sleep; I could hear their slow breathing in rhythm to their heartbeats.
The small mass in my palm was weighing my mind down considerably. I couldn't get to sleep at all. My heart thudded a little faster as I clutched the small piece of rock, and I had to suppress a groan. Why was I being such a little girl?
It was bad enough that when I unwittingly sighed "I miss Sokka," I not only sounded like a goon, but was also completely incapable of saying anything to Katara's attempt at a joke - "If you miss him so much, why don't you marry him?" - though thankfully my silence passed as refusing to dignify her words with a response.
It was bad enough that I'd let all my inhibitions go for a split second and exclaimed "Sokka's coming!" with all the glee and restraint a three-year-old had with candied apples, and then squealed "You're back!" at such a girly high pitch I'd startled even myself. The fact that Aang and Katara had both been missing Sokka as well had been the only thing that saved me from their noticing just how excited I'd been.
It was also bad enough that I was becoming increasingly worse at picking the right words around him, and chose to say "I didn't care" about him to his face, and also forgot to thank him for the piece of space earth he'd saved just for me.
Just for me...
Ugh, there was that jolt again, unfamiliar and swooping somewhere in my chest. I hated how I couldn't control it.
I was acting like an idiot already without getting all giddy over a stupid bit of rock, but I couldn't help clinging to it and feeling the blood run through my veins grow warmer.
The piece of space earth was pretty nifty, I had to admit - it wasn't like normal earth. It was just as solid, but far more fluid. I could make the coolest shapes out of the thing, and it wasn't costing much effort at all. It had a really nice spring to it, an elasticity that made Bending it pure fun.
"That's pretty cool!" Aang had said cheerfully when I shaped it into mini arrow, "Can I try?"
The surge of possessiveness caught hold of my tongue before I could think about it properly. "No."
"Why not?" The Air Bender sounded rather surprised and wounded. I might've taken my words back, but that really isn't my style.
"Because this is fun, and you haven't earned the right yet," I made up on the spot, and Aang gave a little whimper.
"Come on, Toph," Sugar Queen had said, her consoling tone betrayed by a slight hint of irritation in her voice, "Let Aang have a shot at it."
I'd been about to retort, when Sokka cut in, "Ah, let it go. It's for Toph."
Katara gave a little sniff. "Fine."
I had to work really, really hard to keep an insanely wide smile from surfacing, though I couldn't stop flushing in pleasure. I gave a little half-shrug, as though I couldn't care less, but inside, his words were being sung over and over with fanfare.
"If I'm really good at training tomorrow, will you let me try Bending it?" Aang had asked hopefully, interrupting my thoughts, and I had said nonchalantly,
'Fat chance' was more like it, at the rate my thoughts were going.
I sat up, inhaling through my nose and exhaling slowly out my mouth, trying to restore a sense of calm into my nerves. It sort of worked, but I was far too awake with adrenaline to go to sleep just yet. I spread my fingers onto the earth, and singled out his vibrations. He was snoring softly, his heartbeat low and regular.
Every movement of his body, when he'd been fighting with the swordsmaster, had had me on edge. Every awkward stumble, every faltering shift in weight and every sharp, erratic breath from him had captured me in a thrilling state of constant alert. I'd been terrified, but at the same time, I'd never felt more elated for him.
He might lack Aang's graceful movements but he was still so agile, and though his steps had a degree of uncertainty to it, he moved with calculation. He'd called himself a 'regular guy', but the reality of what he really was had never been more clear to me than the moment he'd fought the master alone.
Didn't he see that he didn't have to be a powerful Bender? All he had to be was himself - his noisy, sarcastic, honest self - and that was more than enough...
Quietly as I could, I padded over the grass to the source of soft snoring and sleepy snuffles, and then sank down into the grass beside him. His heartbeat was far more pronounced this close.
The piece of space earth in my palm was warm from my own body heat, having held it for so long. I fingered it absent-mindedly, Bending it into formless shapes as I contemplated.
He had thought of me while creating his sword, and I couldn't understand how. I hadn't needed to go near him when he'd been forging his own sword. I knew how hard he'd been working shovelling coal into the furnace, because I'd been sitting against the wall away from its sweltering heat. I could feel all of his efforts from a distance. The creak in his bones told me well enough how stiff he was just sitting there and waiting, his constantly unsteady shift of weight indicating his nodding off to sleep every few minutes.
It had never occurred to me that I should peek in and remind him I was there physically, as well as mentally. I hadn't been beside him throughout his forging of his sword, yet in the midst of all his hard work and concentration with the meteor, he had pocketed a small piece of space earth with me in mind.
Did I dare to try and gauge what that said about his view of me? Could I really dare to imagine that maybe, just maybe, my absence had signaled thoughts of me more than my presence might have... much like his absence had affected me? Was it too much to hope for?
I pressed my fingers around the piece of space earth, and gasped, feeling my jaw drop. While thinking about him, I'd sub-conciously Bended the piece of rock into an ornate ring of little flowers on my finger.
Furious with myself, I Bended the rock back to a shapeless lump with one hand, and with the other I slapped myself hard on the cheek. The sharp sound was startlingly loud and clear in the quiet, and I remembered suddenly where exactly I was and what time in the night it must be. I had no right to call Aang or Katara noodle-brains.
I heard him stir, and I hastily stood up, but it was too late.
"Toph? 'zat you?"
How he could make me feel like I was being punched in the gut with his sleepy little mumble was beyond me. I gave myself up for lost, however, and sat back down again, unwilling to wake the others up.
"Yeah," I said reluctantly, as quietly as possible, "It's me."
"What was that noise?" He was starting to sit up, his hands scrambling at the front of his sleeping bag as he was clearly trying to get his brain into gear. "Why're you up?"
"It's nothing," I said quickly, and I shoved his shoulders back down to the ground with probably a bit too much force, but I was panicking. "I'm sorry I woke you up."
"Uhm, okay." He sounded utterly confused, and a little winded. "So... what are you doing here?"
Aww, hell. I realised my hands were still on his shoulders, and I drew them back fast. As I did though, I remembered the small piece of space earth clutched in one of my palms, and I quickly improvised.
"I just remembered I never thanked you for this," I said as I held up the rock, the words tumbling out a little clumsily, "I just wanted to thank you."
There was a silence where all I could hear were cave-hoppers chirping in the distance. It took all my willpower to not look nervous as I continued, "I mean, it's a lot of fun to Bend. I think it'll be pretty useful to carry around..."
More silence. The urge to just up and run was overwhelming. He thinks I'm an idiot, I thought, and serve me right for sitting next to him at all with all these stupid girly thoughts rotting my brain and making friggin' fairy rings on my fingers...
"It was nothing." He sounded rather surprised, but nothing else. "I'm glad you like it so much."
"I don't like it THAT much," I said so hotly and quickly, completely automatically, "It's just--" I mentally kicked myself, and managed to say, "--pretty cool."
"Yeah, well," He said, sounding confused again, "I think you're right. It could be useful stuff. Maybe you should Bend it into an arm band, or something. Keep it with you."
"An arm band?" I repeated, surprised at his suggestion, and I felt him shrug and snuggle back into his sleeping bag as he replied,
"Yeah, something like that."
There was a pause, and I realised he was waiting to see if I had anything else to keep him awake for. I got to my feet, brushing grass stains off my pants as I said softly, "Right, will do. Good night, Snoozles."
"G'night Toph," He murmured, and then he rolled over and began snoring again.
I quietly made my way back to my spot and flumped down, the piece of space earth still warm in my hand.
Keep it with you, he'd said. I wondered if he knew how much that meant to me. He'd suggested an arm band... I supposed that wasn't very romantic at all.
Which is fine, I told myself firmly, there's no need to get soppy over him. I Bended the rock around my upper arm, a solid band, and patted it experimentally. It felt right on my arm.
I lay flat on my back, finally beginning to feel sleepy, when I remembered he had added that I could change it to 'something like' an arm band, too...
The band felt smooth and warm under my fingertips as I Bended small swirls into it. Nothing fancy or ridiculous like the bunch of flowers some terrifyingly girly part of my brain had come up with. Just little curls that were fun to trace with my fingers. It could mean anything, really; it didn't necessarily resemble the swirls in the Water Nation symbol I had traced with my fingertips as a little kid.
By doing this, I had officially changed it from an arm band into a bit of jewelry; a simple bracelet, perhaps, but still an accessory with decoration.
Could I let this count as a gift from Sokka?
I felt tingles emanating from where the bracelet touched my skin, and let it slowly lull my body into its warmth and lead me into sleep.