Sokka started to panic. Goodness knows how long she'd been gone, or even where she'd gone to. And there was no way she could've left without him noticing; he'd sat near that earth tent the whole time she'd been hiding in it. All manner of terrible thoughts ran through his mind. Sure they were safe in the temple, but seriously, even Aang didn't know about the wilds of the forest outside, and okay, so maybe she wasn't helpless, but her feet weren't properly healed, even if she could fight back she'd be at a major disadvantage. How the hell was he going to find her? Suddenly, he was struck by a brilliant idea. He grabbed Aang by his shoulders and shook him.
"I need to borrow Appa! Where is he?"
"He's out flying with-"
"Well get him back here now!" Sokka urged.
Aang took out the bison whistle hidden in his shirt, inhaled a deep breath and blew on it as hard as he could. The following silence was soon disturbed by Appa's bellowing roar, getting louder as he descended. He landed fast and hard, a trail of cracked tiles behind him and a disoriented Zuko clinging to the reins for dear life. Aang nuzzled the furry beast affectionately while Sokka wasted no time in climbing up and pushing Zuko into the saddle.
"Sokka, don't be so rash, she'll come back when she's ready," Katara reasoned.
"And what if she doesn't?" He quipped, taking the reins and flicking them forward. "Yip, yip!"
Appa, as quickly as he had landed, promptly took off. The sudden launch shook Zuko from his half conscious state and he scrambled to grab the edge of the saddle. Confused, the firebender started yelling again, until Sokka popped him round the head with his boomerang. He had enough to worry about without this supposedly fearless fire nation warrior – who clearly was not used to flying via bison – shrieking in his ear.
"Ow!" He grumbled, hands checking that the metal hadn't broken the skin on his face. "That was a really mature reaction, huh?"
"Stop being such a baby!" Sokka scolded.
He tugged lightly on the reins, encouraging Appa to slow down so he had better chance of spotting the wandering earthbender. Zuko stared at the water tribe teenager curiously. He certainly had grown a spine quickly; there was a time when this non-bender would have thought twice before being so snappy with the once exiled prince.
"What are you doing anyway?" He asked.
"Looking for Toph," was the reply, blue eyes still on the ground below.
All went quiet for a moment.
Zuko pondered the notion of Sokka going all overprotective for a girl who didn't need protecting. And yet, he knew what it felt like to be so defensive around someone so proficient in defending themselves. Toph reminded him, in many ways, of Mai. They were both so headstrong and were perfectly capable of knowing their own limits.
He understood the helplessness that plagued his system whenever he was around Mai. The way his insides burned with rage when he caught other guys making a move on her, and how much he wanted to spontaneously combust any male that so much as looked at her; but that was different. He and Mai were a couple, those feelings were part and parcel of being a united pair. Sokka and Toph – as far as he knew – weren't that involved. Zuko had no idea how long exactly Toph had been in the Avatar's little posse, perhaps long enough for them all to become attached to her emotionally, but for she and this non-bender to be anything more than friends seemed a bit farfetched.
"Why are you looking for her?" He rolled onto his back and glanced at the clouds.
"She ran away, I'm not sure when exactly,"
Puzzled, Zuko rolled onto his side and pulled a strange face.
"So? It's not like she won't come back,"
"You didn't see the look on her face," He sighed. "Even if I find her I'll be lucky if she ever trusts me again."
Trust. Girls could be funny about that subject. Mai got very snippy with him while they were at the beach. They went with his sister and Ty Lee, who were both classed as single-and-looking. She seemed to think that his reaction to her being approached by other guys was a sign of mistrust. It wasn't her that he didn't trust – it was those punks who dared try their luck with his girlfriend. She wasn't too flattered at his use of the word 'mine' either, as if he treated her like an object: something that he owned. That wasn't true at all; he just wanted her to see that he spoke of their relationship seriously and sincerely. And it was difficult to watch so many testosterone fuelled people trying to sever said relationship.
"Oh come on, it's not like you meant for any of that stuff to happen!"
"How would you like it if someone who is supposed to care about you messed with your food?" He growled.
"My sister did once, when we were kids," His stomach churned madly as he recalled the awful purging session that followed.
"That's because you and your sister hate each other," Sokka remarked, not entirely surprised that Azula would stoop to doing such a horrid thing to her only brother. "Me and Toph had a great friendship before all this."
"My point is, you didn't spike her food out of spite, and you were trying to make her feel better."
Yeah, and all he ended up doing was making her worse. Her body enjoyed the mental freedom that cactus juice gave, but once the effect wore off, all that she felt was anger. Anger and disappointment that he thought so little of her as to go behind her back - no wonder she was so furious that she daren't even speak to him, and had now vanished without a trace.
He squeezed the reins tightly in his hands, resisting the urge to make himself feel even guiltier than he already did. The sheer look of sadness and disbelief that he saw on her face was enough to reduce him to tears. He failed. He failed her as a friend, as a team mate, but more so as someone she seemed to regard with a certain fondness.
"Look at the bright side," Zuko interrupted his thought coma, "She shouldn't be too hard to find."
"How do you know?" He grumbled.
Zuko said nothing, he just pointed in the direction of a dust cloud, rapidly forming among the trees to their left. Sokka yanked the reins harshly and shouted instructions to the sky bison. Eyes wide, Zuko realised he'd just made a big mistake. Appa once again started a steep and speedy descent. They landed within moments, and by the time the bison touched down, the nauseated firebender was starting to regret ever going near the big furry beast.
"Remind me never to ride this thing while you're the one steering it…" He groaned.
Sokka rolled his eyes. Some warrior he was, getting travel sick so easily.
"Stay here," He ordered.
Gazing at the thick, looming dust cloud, it dawned on him that – even if he found her – what would he say? What would she do? The dreaded feeling of guilt and uncertainty that consumed him when she found out about the spiking of her rice, swiftly returned. She might just earthbend him away as she'd done a few times in the past. She might do something much more violent; much more painful. Finally, he realised nothing could possibly be worse than that disappointed look on her face and how it punctured him in the chest like a dagger.
He stepped into the mass of soil powder and blindly fumbled through the layers of drifting sand. It was just like being in the desert again, except with solid ground that would be much easier to navigate. Eyes closed, he walked slowly, listening to all the little noises around him. The rumbling of the dust cloud, claws scratching at the dirt, low growling directly ahead… He cautiously carried on walking and bumped into something… a large something that didn't seem happy that he was there.
Though he could barely see it, he could certainly hear it snarling angrily. The creature reared up and loudly bellowed. It stomped its large foot and cleared the dust surrounding them. Sokka realised then that he was face to face with a rhinobear; an easily angered one judging by the sheer look of annoyance in its eyes. With long black fur and two razor sharp horns on its muzzle, the enraged animal stood at twice Sokka's height.
He stared straight into the furious brown eyes above him. If he could keep the rhinobear caught in a deadlocked stare long enough, he might be able to formulate a plan to escape it. Steadily and never breaking the stalemate, the sly teenager knelt down and felt the ground with his hands for anything that he could use as a makeshift weapon. When his fingers came upon a sharp rock, he gripped it tightly and slashed the beast in the leg. An ominous and pained roar echoed out, and the rhinobear retaliated with a swipe of its giant paws.
Sokka fell backwards, and just as the aggravated creature prepared to stomp the defiant boy…
"Fluffy! That's enough!"
The rhinobear stopped. It snorted obnoxiously at the human on the ground and turned away, limping in the opposite direction. Looking up, Sokka watched the once infuriated beast drop to all fours and brush past someone familiar.
She didn't acknowledge him. She just walked behind the rhinobear that appeared to have been named. He jumped up and followed her.
"Toph, please listen to me," He pleaded. "I came to find you. You didn't have to run away."
Still, she ignored him.
"Please, Toph, what can I do to get you to come back with me? I'm so sorry, I'll do anything to-"
"Why?" she demanded. "Why did you do it?"
"I'm sorry, I really am… I just thought… that it would make you feel better…"
"Well congratulations, you made me feel worse!" Infuriated, she knocked him to the floor. "What were you thinking when you did it?"
He didn't answer.
"You weren't thinking at all were you?" She huffed indignantly and started to walk away. "There's a surprise!"
"Toph, wait, you don't understand!" He grabbed her arm.
"Not until you listen to me!"
Sensing its friend in danger, the rhinobear let out a loud, angry roar.
"Fluffy, I can handle this," she assured, her tone of voice turning vicious as she addressed the boy. "I'm warning you, my feet may not be totally healed but I can still earthbend…"
"You can threaten me all you want; I'm not letting you go until you've heard what I've got to say!" Sokka pulled her down and held her shoulders tightly. "Do you have any idea what it's like, to see someone that you care about so angry and frustrated and unhappy?"
Toph felt her face getting warmer. This was certainly unexpected, not unwelcome, just very much unexpected.
"I know what I did was stupid but I didn't know what else to do," He pleaded "I wasn't thinking of the consequences, all that mattered was that you were back to feeling like yourself."
She had long since recognised that Sokka wasn't trying to hurt or poison her, but that didn't stop her feeling angry and humiliated. During the two days she'd been away from him, the memories of what happened while she was under the influence of the cactus juice slowly pieced themselves together. The silly things she did, the stupid things she said, all of it constantly replayed in her mind. All the running and jumping impaired her healing feet, so the time she spent away from the temple had given her a chance to recuperate.
An awkward silence followed.
Toph felt something nudging her arm. Sokka was startled as 'Fluffy' leaned its head on her shoulder and glared right at him. The rhinobear snorted in distaste while jabbing Sokka roughly with its front paw.
"It's okay, Fluffy," She reached her hand up and scratched behind the beasts ear. Fluffy softly growled with appreciation, its back leg twitching happily.
"So…," He began. "You actually named a wild rhinobear?"
"I only gave it a name because we've bonded over the past couple days," She grinned widely. "Rhinobears have a tough reputation, but they're really affectionate if you show no fear."
Fluffy nuzzled her and she couldn't help chuckling when the black fur tickled her cheek. It wasn't long though before she remembered why Sokka was here. Her smile soon faltered and, noticing he was still fairly close, pushed him an arms length away.
"You know, what you did was really sneaky."
"Please, just tell me why you ran away,"
"At first, I was really angry, I had to get away from you," She confessed and paused for a moment. "I just couldn't believe that you did what you did, and you made a total fool out of me."
He hung his head and avoided looking directly at her. The shame and guilt still scorched him inside, and it would for some time, even if she forgave him. Fluffy had curled around Toph protectively, laying its head on its paws and staring at the teenager opposite them with caution.
"I waited until you all were asleep, snuck out of the temple and left my earth tent there to make it look like I was still there too," She stopped. "I would've come back on my own… eventually…"
"Would you?" He asked "What if I hadn't come out here? What if you thought no one cared enough to come and find you? Would you really come back if you thought that you didn't mean anything to us?"
"Stop being so dramatic," She told him matter-of-factly. "It doesn't suit you."
"I can't help it, I was so worried when I found out you were gone!" He rose up and threw his hands in the air. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again and it hurt like crazy because…"
The sudden pause in his words piqued her interest.
Sokka's words stuck in his throat. As he watched Toph fussing the rhinobear, he desperately searched for something to say. And what exactly was he trying to say? He wasn't sure how to put it. That he would miss her? That he could never imagine a life without her? That his world made so much more sense when she was in it? She would dismiss such things without a second thought, and declare that he was just being 'dramatic'.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you…" He sighed.
"It's not that easy," He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm a guy, and guys aren't good at this stuff…"
"What kind of stuff?" She queried.
She could hear him pacing uncomfortably, trying (and failing) to explain himself. It took a lot to keep her from sniggering at his discomfort. Perhaps she was being cruel, letting him get all wound up when really she had long since forgiven him. She figured he would come looking for her. Sokka was the kind of person to get tangled in certain emotions and she wanted him to dwell on what he did to her, the way she had to dwell on her ridiculous behaviour once her memories flooded back.
"… I like you, and I don't ever want to lose you…"
Okay, that she definitely heard. Her back straightened and her cheeks warmed. He couldn't be serious, could he? Was this all a trick, to get her to go back to the temple with the minimum of fuss? She wasn't having any of it.
"Stop!" She demanded. "I know why you're saying all this! You just want me to just roll over and go back to the others! Well I'm not falling for it; I'll return when I'm good and ready!"
"You are so stubborn!" Sokka fumed, startling her. He had never spoken to her like that before. "I came all this way to find you, to apologise for being such a moron and you throw it in my face! Don't you get it? I can't believe I'm saying this, but you're so blind!"
"WHAT?" Toph screeched.
Fluffy stood up and stared at the loud-mouthed teen threateningly. Undeterred by the beasts' fierce stance and low growl, Sokka continued.
"Why can't you tell that I mean what I'm saying? You knew Zuko was being sincere when he apologised, is it so hard to sense that I'm being sincere too?" He yelled, venting his frustration. "Is it really that hard to believe that I like you? That I would follow you anywhere, just to be near you? For Spirit's sake, Toph, I'm trying to tell you that… I…"
He heaved a sigh and dropped his shoulders in defeat. She too had calmed, although now ever more curious as to what he was going to say before he stopped.
"Well?" She probed, urging him to finish his sentence. The rhinobear, sensing the tension dissipate, returned to its seated position at her side.
"I need you, Toph, and if it means that I have to chase you to the Earth Kingdom and back, then that's what I'll do." He slowly approached her and took her hand in his. "Please forgive me for what I did."
For a moment, everything went silent. All she could hear was her heart thumping madly inside her. He was being sincere, he was telling the truth. She could sense it, she really could; he meant every word of what he'd said. They were best friends after all, was it really so far fetched that he might have developed feelings for her in all their hanging out together?
Whenever they travelled in the sky or on the sea – places where she couldn't use her earthbending at all, let alone use it to see – she always clung to him. He had never once pushed her away. She on the other hand, tended to push him away at will, whenever it suited her. Maybe it was time that stopped. Toph gently pried her hand free and wrapped her arms around him. The hug caught Sokka by surprise. After a moment, however, he hugged her back.
"Does this mean you forgive me?" He whispered.
"Of course," Toph giggled. "I don't hug just anyone you know."
Fluffy, a touch jealous that it had been left out, nuzzled Toph in the side and gave a small whimper. She let go of Sokka and began fussing her furry companion.
"I'm sorry, you can't come with us," she continued stroking the animal's fur and scratching behind its ears. "But you were great company and we'll meet again, you'll see."
A happy growl was followed by the creature trying to lick Toph to death. She laughed at the rough, soggy tongue tickling her face, and carefully pushed the slobbery beast away long enough for her to breathe. She then clutched to Fluffys neck and nuzzled it.
"I'm gonna miss you,"
One last lick from the affectionate fur-ball and it began to walk away. Toph couldn't help but feel sad on hearing her temporary pet leave. That rhinobear had been her friend and protector while she was out in the wild, it had listened to – or at least tolerated – her pointless ranting that first night she spent with it. Maybe she would see it again, maybe she wouldn't, but she knew she'd never forget it.
Once again, she felt herself being scooped up by the same person who started this whole incident.
"Sokka, my feet are much better now," she grinned. "Put me down!"
He took hold of her left ankle, looked at the ball of her foot and nodded.
"Maybe, but I want to carry you, at least until we get back to Appa, just in case."
Toph nuzzled into Sokka's arms and sighed. She could get used to this…
Okay, so, maybe it wasn't the cute, fuzzy epic fluff ending you expected, but this fic was started damn near two and a half years ago and my writing style (as well as myself) has changed a lot since then.
In any case, I hope you like it!