A/N: Sort of companion piece to the third installment of this story, picking up approximately where it left off and…is also not about alcohol? I don't know, Tokka is just so more dynamic than just drinking. Anywho, imagine the Gaang is en route to Gaoling (currently stopped off at Full Moon Bay, as indicated by 'Sneak Out')…post war and all that stuff. Just roll with me here. ^_^
"Are you sure this is really necessary?"
Sokka was beginning to get suspicious. Toph was being very vague, mysterious, and very…un-Toph-like.
"Suddenly afraid of heights, Snoozles?" the earthbender teased without the usual light-hearted jibe in her voice.
"No, but I thought you were. What's climbing a tree have to do with me helping you with…whatever it was you wanted help with?"
Toph paused, squatting on the thick bough she had pulled herself onto, balancing precariously on the balls of her feet, so unconnected from her element. She placed a palm on the trunk of the tree to steady herself. "I told you…this is what I did when I lived with my parents. I used to climb up in this big oak by the ostrich-horse stable and just sit up there and think."
"Well, why would you want to d—ouch!" Sokka stuck his finger in his mouth with a yelp, and Toph glanced quizzically in his general direction. "Got a…heh…splinter. Anyway," he went on questioningly, "Why is climbing a tree now going to help me help you with…whatever?"
"I was getting to that," Toph replied as she reached blindly upward, brushing another, higher branch with her fingertips. Testing its strength, she tugged on it with both hands. Deciding it was stable enough, she braced herself, and, giving a little hop to give herself a boost, she wriggled upward and straddled the branch. Pausing to take a breather, she strained her ears to listen as Sokka struggled to reach her height with multiple grunts of effort and muttered strings of (lucky for him) unintelligible words.
Something soft nudged her right foot, and the earthbender recognized it as the fabric of Sokka's tunic. She listened to the tree as he hoisted himself onto a thinner branch a couple feet below the one she sat on. A telltale crackling noise, slight and barely audible, made Toph jump in alarm.
"Sokka! Watch out!"
Gripping the limb she was sitting on, she swiped out blindly with her other arm, where she guessed that he was. With a crack nearly as loud as cannon fire, the branch snapped under the warrior's weight. She heard him gasp. Toph swung her arm downward in a panic, still reaching out. "Sok—"
Suddenly, a hand met hers, flailing, and held on. The earthbender was jerked forward as all of his weight was thrown against her shoulder by the force of gravity, and from somewhere, she heard a sickening snap. Only by some miracle, she managed to hang on. The rest of his name passed her lips in a sharp exhale. "—ka!"
Then came his voice, strained, but otherwise unharmed. "Give me a sec…got it!"
The weight lifted. Sokka braced himself, panting, against the trunk of the tree, on a sturdier branch, a little lower down.
After the initial streak of fear passed, all that was left within Toph was a simmering anger.
"You idiot! Why'd you climb on that branch? It was too weak to hold your weight!"
His sharp reply drifted upward to settle on her reddening ears. "Well, we know that now, don't we?"
"You could've been killed! Do you know how high up we are?"
"No," Sokka responded in a sarcastic tone, "How high up are we, Toph?"
The earthbender set her jaw defiantly. "High enough up to break bones if you fell!"
"Remind me again why we're even up here."
Toph snorted angrily, but made no verbal response.
"You didn't scare me," the earthbender said after a moment of relative silence.
"I never said I did," Sokka replied brusquely, frowning as he shifted his weight and repositioned himself on the branch he had managed to scramble on to.
"But you thought it," Toph responded harshly, a slight, unidentifiable undertone layering her voice.
Sokka blinked up at the earthbender, looking shaky and frail from where she sat, holding the bough that supported her in a white-knuckled grip. Her right leg was tucked up underneath her, toes digging into the bark, where she had grappled for a solid hold while keeping him one fall away from possible serious injury. Her left leg dangled precariously in the air, and it shocked Sokka to see a thin trickle of blood, its crimson color sharply contrasting against her pale skin, dribbling down from a scrape on the inside of her knee to her ankle, most likely caused by her actions during his near-fall. Though the way she sat looked almost painful, she hadn't bothered to move to a more comfortable position. Her filmed eyes were distant, shadowed.
It hit him suddenly: she was afraid.
Dark clouds rolled overhead, announcing their presence with muted rumblings. The sun began to disappear in several short intervals, until the cloud cover thickened and completed itself, blocking out the day completely. The wind picked up, softly at first, and then in more rapid, unpredictable bursts. It was going to storm.
Toph started as she felt the branch she was sitting on bob slightly. Inhaling sharply, she hissed, "Snoozles, what are you doing?"
"Testing the branch," he responded simply. "Making sure it's strong enough to hold both of us."
The earthbender inched backwards until her back was up against the oak's thick trunk. "Get on another branch! I don't want to risk…"
She cut herself off as she felt the branch pop up sharply as Sokka jumped, swinging his right leg over it, to sit facing her. Toph felt and heard nothing that said that the branch wasn't prepared. The limb held.
"Get down, Sokka!" she demanded as soon as he steadied himself. "It might…"
"No," the warrior interrupted. "It won't. It didn't before." His gaze flew to her leg. "Are you okay?"
Toph didn't even bother to inspect her own injury, though droplets of crimson now dripped from her foot. "I'm fine," she said firmly.
Sokka blinked, tracing the line of blood with his eyes. "You're bleeding."
"Toph," the warrior leaned forward. "Toph," he repeated, quietly, softly. "You'll be fine."
"It's just a little scratch! Of course I'll be fine!" Her tone was disdainful.
"I wasn't talking about that," Sokka's expression was still serious. "You will be fine."
"It's not that simple, Snoozles," the earthbender sighed, glancing downward. "My parents…"
"Toph, you haven't committed a crime. You'll be fine."
"If you keep saying that, I'm going to smack you silly."
"Hit me then," the warrior stated firmly. "It'll all turn out fine, I'm telling you."
Toph punched him in the shoulder. Hard.
"Ow!" Reeling back, he shot her a what-was-that-for? glare.
"I warned you," she said simply, holding her hands up and palms forward innocently.
Sokka's nose wrinkled as he felt something wet splatter onto his cheek. Thunder rumbled mutinously overhead, and several more raindrops dampened his head and Toph's.
"Come on," he said, taking hold of her arm. "We need to get down from here."
As if in response, the oak tree swayed, creaking with protest in a sudden blast of wind. Toph scrabbled on the bark to keep hold as she slipped to one side, a gasp of fright escaping her lips. Sokka hauled her back up, glancing down at her leg again worriedly. "Are you sure that 'scratch' is not as bad as it looks?"
Toph blinked resignedly as she consciously tried to bring her breathing rate down and slow her wildly thrumming heart. "My knee's a little…numb," she admitted grudgingly.
Sokka wedged himself underneath her shoulder and supported her with his arm. She flinched at his touch but didn't move away. "Come on," he said, reaching out to grab an overhead branch to help lower them both down, giving verbal directions to her as they went, painstakingly slowly.
"Okay, watch the branch in front of you…"
Toph felt with her hands along the said branch, and winced as a painful throb lanced through her knee.
"You all right?" came Sokka's voice, laced with a careful measure of distance, knowing she would shun any outright attempt to assist her.
"Fine," Toph gritted her teeth as more large raindrops wetted her cheeks and slowly began soaking their clothing, Sokka's steady arm guiding her downward with only the slightest pressure.
"One more branch and we'll have to jump, Toph," the warrior said, glancing downward as he shift one of his boots to a lower limb, the little earthbender sliding close behind.
"Jump?" Toph sounded hesitant as she kneeled beside him on the bough, arrows of pain slicing through her leg. She recalled the earthbending platform she had used to raise them up when they had started climbing, scowling at herself for dispersing the small plateau. It was a good seven-foot fall, and without a connection to her element, the earthbender couldn't call the earth up to let them down easy.
Toph wriggled uncomfortably. "I don't think I can…" Grasping the earthbender with both arms, Sokka promptly slid off the branch and into the air. "…whoa!"
Instinctively, both he and Toph tucked and rolled as they landed, grunting as they skidded to a halt in the dust, which was in the process of saturating into a thick, grimy mud. The earthbender couldn't suppress a yelp as she landed awkwardly on her knee, only to immediately force herself up, spitting out mud.
Sokka rolled to his knees a yard away, wiping mud from his face and looking to Toph. "Are you all right?" he called.
The earthbender was fuming, angry and embarrassed all at once, and annoyed at her own embarrassment, which only intensified her fury. "Why did you do that? Egg-brain, what is with you and falling off of things?"
"We weren't falling," Sokka protested in his own defense, "We were jumping. I told you we had to jump."
"I wasn't jumping! I was pulled!" Toph sat steaming in the mud as Sokka shook himself and got to his feet. She glared murderously toward him all the while. To his utter surprise, she didn't even take the liberty of throwing a handful of black earthen sludge at him, like she normally would've done.
It was then he realized that something was wrong. "Toph…?" he asked, his voice strained and high as she emitted a muffled groan.
"My knee…" she shifted slowly, wincing, her voice hoarse.
Sokka stumbled toward her, immediately worried that she had sprained it in the fall, but the ground's condition caused it to be more of a scramble. He kneeled, peering at the earthbender's dirt-streaked face for signs of pain. They were there. At agonizing levels. She bit her lip until it bled, and her half-closed, sightless eyes were glazed. Panting raggedly, she shifted as he pushed back her knee-length tan tunic and carefully wiped the mud from her skin, revealing a very swollen, pink knee. Pressing his fingers gently in a few places around the kneecap, he judged her reaction. Upon touching the outer side of her knee, the earthbender suddenly grabbed his arm and violently shoved it back.
"That hurts!" she hissed, agony lanced over her features.
"I think you pulled a tendon," Sokka diagnosed somberly. "It's going to be a long walk back to camp."
Thunder rumbled again, as if punctuating the warrior's statement. Suddenly, though, a barely perceptible, familiar hiss of air through the webbed wooden wings of a glider met Toph's ears.
"Hear that?" she lifted her chin in the air, her bangs falling back and her face exposed to the darkening sky.
Sokka followed her sightless gaze. "Hear wha—"
"AANG!" Toph shouted abruptly, cutting Sokka off and startling him, "WE'RE OVER HERE!"
High above, just as the earthbender yelled and waved toward the sky, the airbender's gaze swept over the tree they sat under, and settled on the muddy figures of his two companions. Angling his glider downward, Aang spiraled toward the ground, signaling to the airborne Appa, nearly a half-mile behind him, with his bison whistle.
Landing with a twirl of his blue-winged glider and a whoosh of air, Aang cried out to his two friends. "Thank Agni we found you! We've been looking for hours! Where have you guys been?"
"In a tree," Toph responded matter-of-factly, though her voice was strained and forced.
Pausing, Aang shot a questioning glance at Sokka.
"Hey," the warrior held up his hands. "It wasn't my idea."
"I find that hard to believe," the airbender commented skeptically.
"It's true," Toph assured him tersely. "Now, where's Sugar Queen…?"
As if on cue, Appa landed in a clump of thick grass a few feet away, sending a blast of air slicing outward. Katara and Suki leapt together from his back, sprinting toward them. Suki ran straight in to Sokka's arms, wrapping hers around his neck and scolding him loudly as she did. "What are you doing out here? What were you thinking? Why didn't you tell me you were leaving? How did you…"
She babbled on furiously, and meanwhile, Katara got to her knees beside Toph. "Where does it hurt?" she murmured searchingly, her blue-eyed gaze sweeping over Toph's muddy form.
"Where does what hurt?" the earthbender remarked sarcastically, scowling.
"Don't play games with me, Toph," Katara chastised, "You're in pain. It's all over your face."
The metalbender sobered. "My knee," she gestured jerkily with one hand. "Snoozles said I pulled something. Feels more like I tore it to shreds."
Sucking some of the water from the soaked ground with a flick of her wrist, Katara pressed it to the earthbender's knee. Toph winced as the waterbender shifted the healing water over the break in her skin, speaking comfortingly all the while. "This scrape is nothing, probably just from however you pulled the tendon in the first place. I can heal it right up. Don't worry about it."
"Who says I'm worrying?" Toph muttered, but deep within her, a pang of anger at herself struck her heart. Why'd I have to bail Sokka out anyway? He would've survived. Why'd I have to go all haywire with climbing the tree? Stupid, stupid, STUPID! I'm such an idiot. I'd be lucky if my parents even were willing to put up with me after all the trouble I've caused.
Finished, Katara disposed of the water she had used to clean the blood and mud off of her knee, and collected more from the soggy soil and filled her water pouch that hung from her hip. She must've seen something more than just physical pain on Toph's face, because she rested a hand on the earthbender's shoulder. "Everything will be all right, Toph," she murmured quietly, giving the younger girl's arm a sisterly squeeze.
Shifting her weight on her arms as the waterbender slipped a supporting arm under her shoulder to help her stand, Toph sighed. "So I've been told."
A/N: Reviewers deserve cupcakes! Speaking of which...oh wait those are brownies. Om nom nom.