She heard the sharp crackles of the fire before she heard anything else. Like tiny snaps, the sound of the burning wood beckoned her forward. Not like she needed any more directional help than she already had. Sokka continued to lead her, holding her hand in his, pulling her gently behind him.
They weren't very far from the village, but they were far enough. She tightened her grip around his hand. No longer could she sense any buildings. Behind the sounds of the fire, Toph could faintly hear the bubbling of the icy sea splashing against the shore.
She hated to admit it, but it was a lot easier to walk with Sokka guiding her. The snow still felt funny under her feet, and the ice made her blind, but just knowing that Sokka knew where he was going was reassuring enough for her.
"Have you ever seen a driftwood fire?" Sokka asked politely, tilting his head down towards hers.
Toph sighed. "Really, Sokka? Have I ever seen a driftwood fire?"
"It was just a question. You don't have to get all snippy," he retorted quickly. She grimaced, knowing that only physical force had the ability to knock any sense into him. Before he could stop her, she drew her hand out of his warm hold and popped him in the gut.
Moaning with the pain, he crouched over. "Oh… right… sorry…"
"Damn right you're sorry!" she said, relishing in her victory.
They closed in, and Toph could sense the tribe sitting around the fire. She assumed that everybody would come, but she didn't necessarily think that it was going to be such a serious occasion. Nobody was talking. What about the party? Sokka said there would be a party. She came for a party, not a bunch of water tribe geezers clinging to their traditions.
But hey, she wasn't one to judge. Her life was filled with boring rituals, one tradition after another. That's what comes out of being born a Bei Fong.
All hail the flying boar.
It was just like the whole marriage thing that her parents were forcing upon her. It was the stupidest thing she ever heard of. Were they that willing to get rid of her? No, she told herself, her parents loved her no matter how much they annoyed her. But did they really? Did they truly relish the time that Toph had been away? During both the war and those long years afterward?
It was true that her father had sent those two numbskulls after her when she willingly left to join Aang. But those earthbending freaks were just in it for the money. And deep down, Toph believed her father was in for the reputation.
Because who else was more caring than a father willing to give up everything to find his lost, blind daughter wandering the world with a bunch of Water Tribe kids and some weirdo claiming he was the Avatar?
Her father may have offered his money, but he sure as hell didn't offer his own time, his own body, or his own efforts to look for her.
The rest of the world was blind to his lies, but Toph could see him them perfectly. His lies were crystal clear.
He told her that she would be happy if she married some wealthy Earth Kingdom man.
Toph knew better than that.
The heat from the huge bonfire was blasting against her face, a fact that she noticed when Sokka stopped. With a light tug, he pulled her down to sit next to him.
"We're just in time," he whispered quickly, cupping his hand around her ear as to not draw attention to themselves. Toph crossed her arms over her chest as she leaned back slightly, breathing deeply and letting the heat roll over her face.
Everything was calm, peaceful. She took in the moment. Breathe in, breath out. Steady. Stay strong.
Then the drums started up, and the pounding reverberations sent tremors through Toph's body. Sokka stood, and pulled up on her elbow.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The beat increased in tempo, and the crowd continued to stand silently, stoically. Faster, faster, cried the drums. Toph flexed her toes out inside of her shoes, absorbing every thump. They coursed through her body like a poison, pounding through her bloodstream.
One final smash, and the beat stopped.
A flute-like instrument sang its gentle tune from behind Toph, and her ears picked up something else. That was Katara. She walked in perfect time to the melody, summoning spirals of snow around her. With a wave of her arm, the ice shot up from beneath her, carving a slick path to the bonfire.
So this is what Sokka meant by Katara having to practice.
Katara bent down, lowering her body. As she raised her arms, three icy blocks rose up from the ground, just far enough from the fire so that they wouldn't melt.
Hakoda solemnly walked down the icy aisle behind his daughter, holding his head high, sweeping his boots along the path gracefully.
Toph tuned her ears to the outside.
Zuko and the three boys were coming soon. They were standing away, preparing themselves.
Toph tilted her head. It seemed as if more visitors were on their way. (And they were a little tardy, too.) A cluster of penguins waddled over from the outskirts of the fire, slapping their big, webbed feet against the ice.
Slap, slap, slap.
The flute stopped. The crowd held their breath. One huge inhalation, cold air filling collective lungs. Silence.
From the fire, Hakoda cleared his throat. "Warriors, step forward." His voice bellowed loud and unwavering over the barren ice.
First, the twins stepped forward. With heads held high and proud, they quickly walked side by side down Katara's carved path. As they walked towards their friends and family, they tried their best to conceal their double smiles. But they would let one crack every few steps or so.
Zuko was different.
He walked slowly, solemnly. His eyes never diverted once from his line of sight. He wasn't ogling at the audience or glancing at his feet or gazing into the burning fire. Once his amber eyes made contact with Katara's unwavering stare, he couldn't look away. He didn't smile, but the happiness overflowed through his eyes, his body.
The three sat before the fire, the heat scorching their bare faces.
"My turn," Sokka whispered before standing and walking towards them.
"Today we are gathered to see these three boys become men," Hakoda continued. A few snickers erupted from the crowd after hearing the Fire Lord be called a boy. His face was set like stone, thought. He was unmoved.
Toph still couldn't put her finger on it. Why would Zuko willingly do this to himself? He was the Fire Lord. Why would he engage himself in a rite of passage not even meant for him? She had already come up with one theory: he was doing it to bring the world closer. If the Fire Lord follows other culture's traditions, that would bring other people to accept foreign customs.
But that wasn't it. Zuko was still too busy trying to bring his people back together, to repair the damages of war.
Toph couldn't put her finger on it. His justification was a mystery.
She focused her attention back on the ceremony. Sokka was scooping up huge globs of paint in his fingers and smearing it across the twins' faces. Toph knew there was a certain pattern to it, but it had never been described in that much detail to her.
Sokka rubbed it on Zuko, covering his scar, his mark, his brand.
"One task remains for the warriors," Hakoda declared to the tribe, raising his hands above his head. "Sokka?" he said more quietly.
Sokka stepped forward, towards the ocean, and lifted a long, heavy stick from the snow. On the top rested a circle of wood covered with dead thorns. He pulled back, digging his heels into the snow and jumped forward swiftly, slamming the stick into the ice with speed and precision. The fire instantly ignited the stick, climbing up and devouring the thorns until all that remained was a flaming circle.
After Sokka did so, Katara stepped closer to Hakoda and waterbended three sharp arrows out of the ground, completely constructed of ice. Hakoda bent down, scooping the ice arrows in his gloved hand.
"These icicles are your childhood," Hakoda said to the three, although his voice was certainly loud enough for everyone to hear. "You must throw them through the fire. If you throw it through the circle and into the fire, and the ice sublimes, you have passed your final test. You must rid yourself of your childhood in order to become men."
Other tribe members spoke in hushed tones. They hadn't been to a rite of passage ceremony since Sokka's. It was a ceremony incredibly steeped in tradition.
The elder twin threw first. His icicle flew perfectly through the circle and into the fire, bursting up as a thick cloud of steam. The younger also completed the task with no problems.
Zuko stood up, towering over the two younger boys. He snatched the icicle from Hakoda's grasp, weighing it in his hand. Breathe in, breathe out. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the sharp icy arrow flying, the tip just barely making it through the circle. The steam rose, and Zuko shouted with glee, his intensity forcing the bonfire to double in size.
Some members of the crowd backed away, cowering behind their hands to shield the heat from their faces.
"Now, now," Hakoda said in a calmed tone as the fire settled down. Katara concealed a giggle, and Zuko stood pretending nothing had happened. Toph knew he was thrilled, though, no matter how much emotion he was hiding (or failing to hide for that matter).
"Come forth," Hakoda beckoned with a wave of his hand. Zuko and the two younger boys stepped forward and knelt down on their knees.
"Your childhood still exists," Hakoda began, "if only in a different form. Like the ice, you, too, have been transformed. You are now warriors. You are now wolves. You are now men."
Zuko's heart was beating so hard.
"Rise, my warriors. Rise as men."
The three rose from bended knee, standing to their full height. The crowd erupted with applause. They rushed towards the fire, enveloping the three with kisses and hugs and congratulations.
Toph refused to willingly jump into the mob of people. She would have another opportunity to congratulate Zuko. She stood away from the crowd, her face now burning from the nip of the cold.
Almost immediately, the drums began to beat again, the flute adding its own melody. People grabbed hands, dancing around the fire, screaming and laughing and singing. Huge platters of food were delivered upon weary shoulders. Toph caught the smell of one plate of food. Warm kelp rolls. Her nose crinkled up in disgust.
"C'mon, Toph," Katara coaxed as she walked over, "Eat something. Enjoy yourself!"
Toph shrugged, leaning back against a stump. "I dunno…"
"Well, that's never stopped you before."
Toph let her eyelids drift over her unseeing eyes. "Fine."
Katara grabbed her hand and pulled her into the crowd. People danced around them, clapping their hands, smiling.
Toph smiled at them, trying to join in the fun, but the pit in her stomach was slowly growing bigger and bigger.
Like Zuko and the twins, Toph was no longer a child by Earth Kingdom standards. But she most certainly was not celebrating growing up.
Growing up meant getting married. Growing up meant being tied down, and she most certainly refused to do that.
Even though she was freezing the majority of the time, and she still dreaded awkwardness with Sokka, Toph felt that she would gladly stay in the South Pole, free of responsibility, rather than return home.
"Hey!" Sokka yelled over the crowd. Toph stood still, letting the music and the vibrations of the dancing drown her thoughts. "Hey," he repeated, swinging his arm around her shoulders. "Come dance!" He pulled her closer, laughing loudly.
"Do I have to?"
"You definitely said that you liked parties. Come on!" he exclaimed as he grabbed her hand and pulled her closer to the fire. The fire sparked. He swung her around, laughing. Toph tripped over her feet, clinging onto his arms when she lost balance.
"Snoozles! Do you even know how to dance?!" she yelled, some strands of her bangs flopping into her eyes.
"Yes!" he retorted, his voice cracking.
"Sokka," she sighed, rolling her eyes. "I know when you're lying." He pulled his hands away from her, letting his arms fall comfortably at his sides.
"So?" He sounded offended.
"Didn't your mom teach you?" she asked. After the words spilled from her mouth, she realized what she had actually said. "Um… sorry."
"It's okay." He shuffled his feet.
"Here, I'll teach you." She took a deep breath. What was she doing? "Put your hand on my waist."
It turned out that Sokka was a fast learner. (Toph remembered spending countless hours on lessons when she was a little girl.) Sokka twirled her gently across the ice, leading her steps carefully. Snow started falling around them, cascading into the crowd. The cold was bitter, but Toph couldn't focus on anything else but the dance.
"I know you're a good earthbending teacher," he said softly, "But you're a great dance teacher."
Toph's words got caught in her throat. She didn't know how to respond. But she wouldn't have to.
Sokka nudged her in the ribs. "Hey, check them out." Toph heard a whisper.
"Katara, could you come here?" Zuko asked quietly, taking her hand and pulling her towards the ocean. The sound of the crashing waves almost overpowered his voice, but Toph could still hear. "I wanted to become a man in your culture for one reason only."
"Zuko, you don't have to explain anything," Katara said as she walked up to him, gently putting a hand on his shoulder. In a lower voice, she added, "I know you're trying to bring the four nations together. You don't have to explain yourself to me."
Zuko shrugged her hand off his shoulder and grabbed it before it fell.
He spoke softly, ignoring her protests, "I wanted to become a man in the Southern Water Tribe… because only a man is worthy of your hand in marriage."
He stooped down on one knee, bringing her hand to his surprisingly warm lips. His free hand dug into his pocket and rose out again, revealing a beautifully carved necklace. On the stone, swirls of fire were etched into the design. Zuko held it up to Katara, his eyes bright and hopeful.
"Katara, will you marry me?"
Toph's eyes widened.
"Yes! Yes… Of course!" Katara cried, her blue eyes sparkling with tears of joy. She bent down and pulled his face to hers, joining herself with him in the most passionate kiss they had ever shared. Toph couldn't help but smile.
"So this is why he did it?" Toph asked Sokka, her head tilted to the side. Her voice could barely be heard there was still so much yelling and dancing and singing going on. Sokka was beaming as he nodded.
"Yup," Sokka explained. "He'd do anything for her."
Toph grinned, but a little voice complained inside her heart.
It must feel nice… to marry for love.
She didn't think she'd ever get that chance.
a/n: I really struggled with this chapter. Just getting this written down was a challenge, and I still don't like how it turned out. But I had to get it done. SO I DID. Review?