Title: Falling in the Water (part 7 of 7)
Author: Kyra Rivers
Warnings: Violence, mild language, allusion to rape, dark themes.
Genre: Horror, Supernatural, Action
Notes: This story takes place during Avatar season 2, sometime after the episode "Bitter Work". Also, I pretty much just assume that the Earth Kingdom equates to China, so all of my original characters will have Chinese names. This story will be Gaang-centric (with extra Toph), and it will also include a few minor OCs. Minor Kataang hints (no more than are already in the series), and uh. Tokka if you squint. Kinda. I can't really see them together at any time in actual canon, to tell the truth, but that doesn't mean I can't allude to it. :) This story can pretty much be assumed to be AU, though it's kinda more like a really dark what-if episode than an actual change to the storyline.
Thanks: I could not possibly have written this story without the help of my friends. Thank you to He Li Wen and Zhou Li Kai for being awesome sounding boards, and for real, Countess of Lace one of the most glorious women on the planet. Thank you SO MUCH for beta'ing this story for me, darling! You're the bestest. ;P
Summary: Aang makes a mistake. Toph pays the price.
The early morning sun cast a pale golden glow through the open window, highlighting a square of the dark green quilt that draped over the bed. Propped up on the bed were two bare feet, clean but callused, and belonging to the tall slumbering boy perched on a wooden chair beside the bed. His head was tilted back against the chair's sturdy frame, mouth open as he breathed deeply. One arm was wrapped tightly in a bandage and braced against himself, while the other was extended to lay on the bed, large hand resting solidly on top of the bed's occupant's pale arm.
The door to the room creaked open quietly and a small boy walked in carrying a bucket of water. He set it down a bit loudly, and the taller boy woke with a start.
"Ugh," Sokka moaned, rubbing the back of his neck with his uninjured hand. "Ow. Seriously, this is like the crick of death."
Aang smiled at him sheepishly, saying, "Sorry for waking you." He glanced over his shoulder at the still ajar door and added, "Although I think Katara's going to be here in a second, so it's probably better that I did."
"Doesn't matter," Sokka muttered, shrugged. He winced as he rotated his neck, clearly not finding a comfortable position. "My neck's going to ache for the rest of the day no matter how I woke up."
"Hm," Aang agreed quietly, before turning to regard the still form in the bed. He kept his expression carefully blank as he watched the slow rise and fall of her chest, asking, "Any change?"
He couldn't keep the desperate hope out of his voice, and Aang imagined that Sokka was feeling the same way. Toph was pale and motionless under the heavy quilt, with deep circles under her eyes and bandages wrapped around her chest. It had been three days since they had rushed back to the village with Toph unconscious in Sokka's arms, and Katara practically passed out in Aang's. The first hour back had been chaotic; nearly every member of the village had greeted them, despite the late hour, and thankfully the village healer had been able to stabilize Toph well enough to keep her from dying. It had been close, the healer told them later; if they had arrived any later, it would have been too late to save her. Aang had to leave the room when the doctor said that, unable to deal with the reality of the situation. It was easier to watch over Katara, whose exhaustion was at least not bordering on fatal.
In the end, all the medicine in the world couldn't immediately cure that much poison and it was revealed shortly after the doctor's inspection that some of Toph's cuts had become infected as well. Her fever had only just broken the day before, and before that she had been delirious and panicked, only calming down whenever one of her three travel companions had been near. Sokka was the one who seemed to calm her down the most, though Aang had realized quickly that was mainly because Toph still vaguely remembered the battle, even in her delirious state. Whenever Aang and Katara were watching over her, she would fret about Sokka fighting against a dragon and get anxious until Sokka returned. Sokka explained the whole fairy tale analogy to the rest of them with great amusement, though Aang noticed him grow tense and serious whenever Toph began feverishly mumbling again.
It had been a long three days of waiting and worrying. Aang spent most of the first night standing guard over Katara while Sokka helped the healer with Toph, because Katara had scarcely made it off Appa in the village before she had collapsed, legs refusing to work any longer from sheer exhaustion. The healer surmised as much, getting one of his assistants to brew a drought, advising at least a full day's rest, if not two.
Katara being who she was, she had been fighting against those orders within half a day, insisting that they needed her help with Toph. Truth be told, Katara's healing abilities might have helped the young girl heal faster, but by the time Katara had fought her way beside Toph's bedside and was able to look over Toph herself, she concluded reluctantly that Toph would heal without her using bending to help it along.
She then promptly curled up next to Toph and slept for more than a day straight, ignoring the coming and going of the healers and Toph's occasional babbling all the while. She had woken up just after Toph's fever broke the day before and had gratefully accepted the offer of He Li Wen's family to recuperate and freshen up at their house instead of crowding up the healer's spare room.
"Actually," Sokka replied brightly to Aang's question, smiling down at Toph, "she woke up last night." He reached forward with his good hand and brushed some stray hair away from her face, and her nose twitched as the movement tickled her. She otherwise didn't respond.
"She did?" Aang asked anxiously, stepping closer from excitement. "What'd she say? Is she okay? Does she -- um, remember? What happened?"
"Don't know," Sokka said. "She woke up for a few minutes, and at first I thought she was delirious still, because she started muttering something about the dragon again, but she said she thought she had dreamed about me fighting a dragon, and asked where the hell we were." He grinned at Aang and added, "She fell asleep again before I could answer. Lazy," he accused, poking Toph in the arm.
"Oh," Aang said in response, staring down at his teacher's still form with a small frown. He shifted awkwardly at the bedside, and then put forth, "Maybe... I mean, I kind of hope..."
Sokka looked up at him quizzically.
"It would be nice if she didn't remember," Aang finished quietly, "wouldn't it? The Wild Woman, I mean. That's something I wish I could forget." A cruel voice inside him whispered, and then you wouldn't have to feel guilty anymore, would you? The voice changed to the shrill hissing of the Wild Woman, accusing, Selfish boy! Aang made a face at the memory, trying hard to ignore the twisting of his stomach as he considered how Toph must have felt.
Sokka raised an eyebrow curiously at Aang's expression, but didn't bother to comment on it. Looking back at Toph, he acknowledged, "Maybe it would be nice, but I don't know if she'd like forgetting something that happened to her. Seems a little out of control for someone like her." He shrugged, adding, "Besides, when she's not talking fairy tales, she doesn't seem to mention her that much. Mainly she freaks out about random men in the forest, for whatever reason."
Aang blinked at this revelation, torn from his guilty thoughts by the strangeness of the situation. "Men in the forest?" he repeated.
"Yeah," Sokka confirmed. "She kept saying the men were going to hurt us." He shrugged again, clearly not knowing what more to say on the matter, but Aang could see the tension in his eyes as he stared down at Toph. The fingers on his healthy hand were tapping out a continuous beat on the pale skin of her arm, and Aang almost smiled at the thought of Toph waking up just to yell at Sokka for annoying her. It was probably exactly was Sokka was going for.
Aang started to say something comforting, like "Maybe it was just another fairy tale," but before he could speak, the door opened and Katara walked in with another bucket full of water in her hands. She set it down next to the one that Aang had brought, saying, "One of these is for you, Sokka."
"Thanks," Sokka said with a nod, though he didn't move from his chair. He started to tap his fingers up and down Toph's arms in mimicry of a person walking, smiling fondly when a muscle in Toph's face twitched, followed by the slight furrow of her brow.
Katara gave him a Look, the kind that Aang always quietly capitalized in his mind. "Sokka! She needs to rest, you know."
"Yeah, I know," he replied, and when he looked at Katara his face was set in a stoic expression. "But we can't stay here much longer. I don't know how Azula and her crazy friends found us, but we can't risk them attacking the village. We've already stayed here way too long."
"Toph was sick!" Katara chastised, looking offended by the statement
"I didn't say it was for a bad reason!" said Sokka with a pained look, tensing. He quickly defended, "We didn't have a choice, I totally get that. But look, her fever's almost gone, and she woke up last night for a little bit. She can sleep on Appa just as easily as here, and we can just fly until we get to another town to hide out. I just don't think staying here is going to be safe -- for any of us."
Aang considered his position and agreed, "He has a point. I really don't want to risk this village getting attacked because we lingered here too long."
"I'm not going to agree to leave until I've at least checked Toph over," Katara said simply, her face impassive despite the worry in her eyes. She said to Sokka, "You're right that we need to keep moving, but if flying is going to make Toph worse, I would rather take the chance. Besides, this time it'll be three on three, and we'll all be at top strength instead of exhausted."
"And they'll be better prepared," Sokka shot back, though his tone lacked venom. "You think they won't try and strike where it hurts?"
"They'd try to find Toph first," Aang caught on, recognizing the tactic. "Now that they know we're all here. She's too sick to fight, and it'd be the easiest way to control us all."
"Especially after Toph chased Azula around like a puppy-squirrel after a nut," Sokka said, allowing a fond smile to grace his face. He turned back toward Toph and said, "You hear that, Toph? I called you a puppy-squirrel. Because you're so tiny and cute. Oh, and insane, but mainly the tiny yappy part."
Clearly Sokka was going on the "annoy Toph until she wakes up" track. Toph didn't react, but Aang imagined his teacher smacking him on the head for her. It seemed the dutiful thing to do.
Katara sighed, saying reluctantly, "You might be right, but that doesn't mean I'm going to change my mind if Toph is still too sick." She turned to the slumbering Toph and felt her forehead as she pulled water to surround her other hand, continuing, "The healer said a week of rest a least, though I don't think he was taking into account our situation..."
She trailed off, her expression growing spacey as she began to use waterbending to check on Toph's health. For a few moments, nothing changed, but soon Toph began to twitch under the attention, clearly uncomfortable with the feeling of cool water on her skin.
"Hey Toph," Sokka said in the same annoying voice as before, poking Toph in the side. "Heeey, Katara's gonna give you a bath, Toph. No more mud ever. I bet she's gonna make you wear a frilly dress, too."
"Sokka," Katara reprimanded, giving Sokka a foul look.
Sokka ignored her, poking Toph again as the young girl made a face and tried to squirm away from his touch. "She's gonna tie a bow in your hair," he added, grinning as Toph made a vague sound of protest, raising up her hand weakly in order to bat Sokka's away.
Aang snickered and threw in, "I bet she's gonna get makeup too!"
"Oooh, and those little frilly sock things!"
"White lacy gloves?"
"Definitely. Toph can't be a lady without lacy gloves."
"Guys!" Katara interrupted, sounding exasperated. "I am not! And I can't concentrate when you two keep annoying me."
"I'm not trying to annoy you," Sokka protested, his expression gleaming with false innocence.
"Yeah," Aang agreed. "I'm pretty sure this conversation is tailored to annoy Toph."
"It's working," muttered a hoarse voice from the bed, and all three looked down to look at Toph. Her eyes were still closed, but she proceeded to grab Sokka's hand and mutter, "If you don't stop poking me, I'm gonna hit you."
Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper, but Aang was relieved to hear it all the same after those three days of anxious worrying. "Toph!" he cheered happily, putting his hands on her's and Sokka's. "Are you feeling better? Does anything hurt?"
Toph pondered his question silently for a moment before answering, "Just my chest, a little, and my head. But I think my headache's mainly from Snoozles babbling like an idiot at me all morning."
"Aww, you heard all that?" Sokka said, grinning. "I tried to make all my insults especially irritating, just for you."
"You're all heart," she replied dryly.
"Anyway," Katara interjected with a pointed look, "I checked you over with waterbending and everything looks relatively okay, Toph. I know you're probably exhausted still, but we do need to leave soon if possible. Like Sokka said, it's still dangerous."
"Um," Toph replied after a brief pause. She managed to sit up a little, rubbing at her eyes with the back of one hand. "Okay, I guess," she agreed, frowning, "but uh -- what happened? Last I remember, we..."
Toph trailed off, and Aang noticed her face paling as she remembered exactly what had happened earlier. All his previous amusement vanished as though it had never been there, leaving behind the crushing weight of guilt.
"We were leaving the forest," she finally continued. "And um. Was someone there?" Aang had never seen Toph look so confused, but then, he imagined he would feel just the same.
"Yeah," Katara replied softly. "It was those three crazy girls from before." She looked over at Sokka and Aang and said, "Hey, why don't you two get everything ready to leave by this afternoon? I can tell Toph what happened and get all our things ready, and then we can try to keep moving, okay?"
Sokka gave her a sharp nod, standing and stretching his good arm up in the air. He winced a bit as it jarred his shoulder, but he said nothing except, "All right, I can see when we're not wanted. C'mon, Aang."
"I'm glad you're awake," Aang told Toph before following Sokka out. He squeezed her hand once, and Toph tilted her head at him, looking bemused.
"Yeah, me too," Sokka agreed. Just before they exited, he shouted back, "And you better not fall asleep again or I'm going to poke you until you bruise!"
A loud clang sounded just before they shut the door, but neither of them needed to look back to know that Toph had tried to throw the water pail at him.
Getting their things together and leaving was relatively easy once Katara was assured of Toph's ability to travel. They thanked the villagers for assisting their recovery, particularly Lao Mei Ying who had run a 24-hour patrol of the surrounding woods to make sure they hadn't been followed, but no one in the village would accept any apologies for inconvenience. Rather, they were so grateful to be rid of the wraith, they supplied more goods than Appa could even hold despite the struggle they had been having economically. Katara had reservations about taking so much, especially when she saw some of the poorer families in the village, but Sokka had been the one in change of collecting the goods and he seemed to view them as rightfully earned.
Once they were in the air, however, Katara began to notice some problems that while in the village had been easy to miss, but while restricted to the confines of Appa's saddle were much more prominent. Toph spent most of the time toward the back, secured down in a small little corner of bags and huddled in on herself against the wind. She slept a lot, which Katara was pleased for, because she still had a mild fever when they left and Katara didn't relish the idea of it getting higher again. Katara made thick soups out of the supplies the villagers had provided and made sure to give Toph any medicine she needed, but otherwise left the younger girl alone.
Sokka and Aang, however, seemed to be taking the role of nursemaid to heart, and not really in a good way. Aang was constantly checking up on Toph, trying to provide extra blankets or bits of food from seemingly nowhere, sometimes even interrupting her sleep in order to make sure she was comfortable.
"How can I be comfortable on a saddle, Twinkletoes?" Toph sniped at him the third time he asked, anxiety hanging stark in the air around Aang. She swatted in the air near his face, waving him away as though he was a bothersome fly, and sank deeper into the blankets around her.
Sokka was a little subtler about his over protectiveness, but to Katara, who had known him her entire life, it was still apparent. Unlike Aang's constant fretting, Sokka simply never left Toph's side. At first, Katara had assumed it was coincidence of seating choice, but then she noticed that every time they stopped to eat or sleep, Sokka followed the girl around. Even when Toph needed to go somewhere alone for personal matters or bathing, Sokka would sit anxiously waiting for her to return. During the first couple days of travel, Katara understood where Sokka was coming from -- she also tended to check up on Toph more than she really needed to, just to make sure that she wasn't going to get sick again, but when they had been on the move for five days and Sokka still wasn't letting up, Katara figured there was some kind of underlying problem.
As for Toph, she seemed to be healing well enough, but Katara noticed that she really wasn't talking. Replying to questions, sure, and definitely sniping at everyone when they got too overbearing with the caretaking, but even though Toph was usually kind of quiet comparatively to everyone else, she was being particularly silent. After three days in the air, Katara realized that she hadn't heard Toph speak once about what had happened to her. She would have just brushed it off as Toph being Toph -- the earthbender often kept her own council, and though Katara was trying to get her to open up, this sort of touchy subject was not the way she wanted to go.
However, on the third night she noticed something especially odd: Toph not only refused to sleep alone, but she also didn't sleep by either of the boys. It wasn't obvious; the first night, they had flown on Appa through the night, and Katara's spot on the saddle was already next to Toph's. They had landed late on the second night and scarcely did anything but set up camp and sleep, and since that night's camp was in a cave, Katara hadn't thought anything of Toph curling up next to her in the corner.
But on the third, fourth and fifth nights, they had landed with plenty of sunlight left and slept under open air. However, Toph still grabbed her bag, set it down next to Katara's, and plopped down unceremoniously, stretching out flat on the soft earth. After the fifth night, Katara couldn't even blame it on coincidence; there was a light shower in the evening, but before Katara could even unpack her tent, Toph had already made one big enough to cover both of them, clearly showing her intent.
It wasn't really that strange, despite how independent Toph usually acted. If Katara had been the one the wraith took, she probably would have insisted that everyone sleep in a heap for the next month just to be sure that someone was there. What really worried Katara wasn't Toph's sudden dependency, but rather the way she would only let Katara sleep next to her. If Aang or Sokka slept too close, Toph would either curl tighter next to Katara or even, as on the second night, actually change spots sometime in the night so that Katara was between her and the boys. Katara wasn't sure why Toph felt safer around her, but she knew it was something that had to be fixed. Even if she wasn't able to feel Toph's rapid heartbeat every time one of the boys drew too close at night, she could see the way Sokka and Aang were taking the actions to heart. Toph couldn't see the way her actions pained them and no one was going to make her change, but Katara knew that if things kept on the way they had been, nothing would get resolved.
It was due to this that Katara suggested to Aang that they stop early on the sixth day.
"I just think that we've put enough distance in," she explained simply, "and I personally just want to relax a bit. There's a big lake coming up, isn't there, Sokka?"
Sokka, sitting predictably by a dozing Toph, looked up from his study of the map and nodded, adding, "I think stopping sounds like a good idea. Any longer in the air and I'm going to get saddle sores. And giant air bison saddle sores are something no one wants."
So as soon as they arrived at the lake, they landed. Unpacking didn't take too long; even Toph participated, though Katara suspected it was part of her attempt to stop Sokka and Aang from constantly pestering her about her health. Once everything was set up, Toph stalked away quietly, rolling her eyes when Aang tried to give her a blanket and shoving him over with earthbending. Before he could offer again, she was gone, heading in the direction of some nearby caves.
"I swear by the earth, Aang," she snarled over her shoulder as she left, fists clenched by her sides, "if you follow me with that stupid blanket, I'm going to bury you so far beneath the ground that you'll never feel air again. I don't care that you're the Avatar; we'll just get another in like, nine months or so."
That was harsh, even for Toph, and as Katara saw the stricken look on Aang's face, she knew that something had to change. Though she and the boys took the opportunity to bathe while Toph was off sulking, when Katara returned from her trip, she saw that Sokka was still fretting around anxiously for Toph to return and Aang was sullenly playing with a marble.
"I'm going to get things ready for dinner. Will you help me, Aang?" Katara asked, smiling at Aang when he nodded immediately. She turned to Sokka, saying, "It won't be ready for an hour or so, but will you go find Toph?"
Sokka was on his feet immediately, agreeing, and Katara grabbed his arm to stop him from starting off.
Quietly, she said, "Look, someone needs to talk to her. She's always on the defensive with me, and I don't think Aang would have any idea how to ask her about it. Plus, I really don't want to risk her actually burying him."
Sokka regarded her with a heavy look, his jaw tensing as he nodded slowly.
"I'm just saying, dinner won't be ready for awhile," Katara repeated. "And I don't think bottling everything up is going to help anyone."
"Yeah," Sokka agreed softly, nodding. "Yeah, okay," he repeated, and without another word, he set off in the direction where Toph had last been seen. Katara watched him leave, and as soon as he was out of sight, she turned to look at Aang, who was busying himself with the food supplies.
"Do you think we can make something other than soup tonight?" Aang asked her over his shoulder, digging through the basket that held the fresh vegetables. "I mean, I like it as much as the next monk, but we've had it so often lately, and Sokka always complains that he can't add meat."
"Sure," Katara acquiesced, unsure of how to broach the subject she wanted. She fretted over it for a little while, but in the end, she took a page from Toph's book and decided to be straightforward about it. "Aang," she said to draw his attention, "You need to stop feeling guilty."
If Katara had doubted the reason behind Aang's actions, she wouldn't have after seeing Aang's expression, like a gecko-deer caught in the light of a flame.
Before he could deny it, she continued, "I'm serious, Aang. If you keep beating yourself up about what happened to Toph, it's just going to make you feel worse and worse. And that's only if Toph doesn't bury you under a ton of rocks for constantly hovering over her."
"I don't hover," Aang protested, though he noticed the look on her face and added, quietly, "Not constantly."
"Yeah, you do," Katara corrected. "Heck, you're annoying me with it. Can you imagine how Toph -- Toph, who barely tolerates being on a team in the first place -- is dealing with it?"
Aang winced and made a sheepish sort of expression before wondering aloud, "She's actively plotting my death right now, isn't she?
"I'm sure she's going to enlist Sokka to draw up battle plans," Katara agreed, nodding. "And the thing is," she continued, drawing nearer to Aang and placing a gentle hand on his bare shoulder, "I think part of what's annoying her so much is the fact that she has no idea why you're always fretting over her."
"I'm worried about her!" Aang said. "She's been so quiet lately, and she was so sick and hurt, and it's all my fault--"
"No, Aang, it isn't!" Katara interrupted, getting in his face to make sure he was listening. "That's just my point. What happened to Toph is not your fault. It was an accident."
"It was my idea," Aang resolutely replied, his brow furrowing as he stared back at her. He sat down heavily on a nearby stone, slumping down dejectedly. "To go after the Wild Woman, it was my idea. And Toph's the one who got hurt."
"I was there with you the whole time," said Katara. "I could have argued with you at any time, but I didn't. Neither did Toph! The only person who thought it was a bad idea was Sokka, and even then, he agreed to go after her because you were right, Aang. No matter what happened in the forest, going after the wraith was the right thing to do."
Aang's shoulders tensed, and Katara could practically feel him getting angry. "But other people aren't supposed to get hurt!" he replied, his voice just short of yelling. "I know it was the right idea, but," and here he paused, taking a breath as he collected his thoughts. When he began again, he seemed a bit calmer.
"I used the fact that I was the Avatar to argue my point," Aang said, and Katara could see the pain in his eyes. "The entire reason Toph is here is because I'm the Avatar, because she needs to train me, and I used it to convince everyone that we needed to fight some extra battle. And then Toph got really hurt, all because of what I said. All I can think is that she could have died, and then--"
He broke off, mouth twisting in a frown, but before Katara could say anything he continued, "It is my fault. It's my fault she's even here. She left her home and everything she had to help me train, and all I've done to pay her back is get mad at her and nearly get her killed. All because I'm the Avatar."
Katara let the words hang in the air for a moment, taking some time to come up with a good response. Aang was half turned away from her, staring out at the forest with a pained expression. After a few moments, she said, "If Toph heard you say that, I think she wouldn't bother with plotting. She'd probably just pound you until you stopped talking."
Aang gave her a foul look, but Katara wasn't about to be put off by his hurt feelings.
"No, really," she said. "I get what you're saying, Aang, but the fact is, you didn't kidnap Toph and make her come with you. She chose to come. She was happy to come; do you remember how depressing her home was? And yeah, maybe you used your Avatar status to convince everyone to fight the wraith, but Toph was right there beside you the whole time. If she really hadn't thought it was a good idea, do you think she would have kept quiet about it? Toph isn't shy about making her opinion known."
Aang's expression had gone from angry to upset again, but he was listening to Katara quietly. He interjected briefly, "But she wouldn't have even been in that situation if--"
"If she hadn't chosen to be?" Katara cut in, giving Aang a look. "Toph makes her own choices Aang, just like I do, just like Sokka does. We all knew that you were the Avatar when we joined up, and we knew that meant fighting. Yeah, the wraith was particularly bad, and this was definitely a close call that I don't want to ever repeat, but feeling guilty isn't going to make it any better. Especially because I don't think Toph has once thought of blaming someone other than the wraith for what happened."
Aang looked down at the ground, running a toe in the dirt with a pensive expression on his face. After a long moment, he said, "I just... I couldn't even protect her." He looked up at Katara, eyes wide, and said, "I put everyone in danger, all the time, and most of the time, it's okay, because I'm the one who everyone's trying to attack, and I can fight them off. You're all strong fighters, but it's still me who has to deal with the brunt of the attack, just because I'm the one they want.
"But this time," he continued, jaw clenching, "This time Toph was the one attacked, and I couldn't protect her. She's protected me. She fights to help me, and she trains me, and I wasn't able to help her."
"But you did help her!" Katara corrected, trying to keep the incredulity out of her voice and failing. At Aang's startled glance, she went on, "Aang, you may be the one who put everyone in that situation, but you're also the one who got us all out of it. Sokka and I couldn't have banished the wraith. And later, when Sokka and Toph were trapped in the boulder, you're the one who figured out how to open it. Using earthbending, I should add, which just shows that you're paying Toph back plenty by learning from her. I asked Toph, and she said that the kind of bending you did to free her and Sokka was actually really advanced."
"Really?" Aang asked, looking intrigued.
"Yeah, really," Katara affirmed. "She was really proud of you for using it."
At this, Aang smiled, but it was cut off in seconds as he gave Katara a suspicious stare. "There is no way Toph said something like that," he debated.
Katara glared at him, pursing her lips, but finally confirmed, "Okay, fine, she didn't actually say she was proud, but she did say you were less of a moron that she thought you were, and for Toph that's practically glowing praise."
Aang looked mildly dejected at Toph's words, but managed a half-smile as he said, "That's true, I guess."
"See, Aang," Katara concluded softly. "The wraith was awful, and I know you're still worried about Toph. We all are. But I think it'll help a lot of if you let your actions be motivated by your concern for her, not your guilt over what happened. I think it'll make it a lot easier to see when Toph actually wants your help and when she doesn't."
Aang took in her advice and seemed to think it over a bit as Katara took the time to start preparing dinner. After a couple of minutes, he offered, "I'm pretty sure the day Toph admits she wants my help will be when all the snow melts in the South Pole."
Katara grinned over at him. "I know," she said, gesturing with a cutting knife. "That's why you have to be sneaky about it."
For the first time since leaving the forest, Aang's returning smile didn't look forced.
Toph had been alone for a whole, precious hour before someone tried to find her again. And she thought about hiding -- really, in a land with so many natural rock formations and caves, disguising herself was a cinch --, but she knew it would only make everyone worry even more than they already did.
Besides, it was Sokka who found her. He might have been constantly hovering, but he was at least quiet about it.
"Hey," he greeted as he approached, hesitating when he was roughly five feet away from her.
She grunted in response, not bothering to turn and face him. She was balancing rocks on top of each other, making them branch out into increasing lengths. It was a pretty simple earthbending exercise, but one that honed precision well. Unlike water and fire, earth didn't lend well to being made into a whip because it didn't tend to flow very well unless water was added. But Toph thought maybe she could create a little rock chain like Katara's water whip, if only she could get the precision of movements down. Right now, her little tower looked more like a tree than a ribbon, but it was kind of fun to play around with.
Not to mention, rocks didn't talk at her or nag her incessantly about her health. That was a definite plus.
"That's pretty neat," Sokka said, stepping forward a couple feet when Toph didn't immediately snap at him.
Toph shrugged. Silence loomed in between them, which Toph clung to happily, enjoying the way she could feel Sokka shifting his feet awkwardly. She hadn't been with them nearly enough to form a solid bond with anyone in the group, really, though when it came down to it, Sokka was the one she fought with least. He was funny, if kind of spastic, and she liked how he wore his heart on his sleeve. Not to mention, despite some of the ridiculous things he said, he seemed to be a pretty smart person when he actually put his mind to it. As a person who had had a lot of formal education but not a lot of interest in it, Toph could appreciate someone who might have actually enjoyed some of her tedious lessons.
Finally, Sokka seemed to find his courage, and he walked up beside her and sat down on the ground nearby. He said, "I think we should talk."
Toph tensed without thinking, hating the serious tone to his voice. She imagined it was like what a normal father would sound like if he needed to discuss something with a daughter. Her father had never sounded like that, of course; his voice has always been laced with patronizing tones, as if he was speaking to a girl half her age. And her mother had never even bothered to scold her; Toph vaguely recalled overhearing that such a thing wasn't "ladylike" or something like that, back when she was younger.
Toph wasn't sure if this was how friends spoke to each other. She'd never had any, discounting the badgermoles, and they didn't talk.
"Is Twinkletoes crying because I hurt his feelings?" she ventured, hoping that Sokka was simply talking about her being rude. It would piss her off if he was going to blame her entirely for the atmosphere of the group, but such a conversation would still be preferable to talking about what happened back there.
"Could be," Sokka replied easily. "I'm not worried about it. Aang bounces back pretty easily, unless Katara's the one being mean."
"Sweetness?" Toph asked. "I didn't know she was physically capable of being mean to Aang."
Sokka snorted, and shifted his position so that he was resting his arms on his bent knees. He said, "Yeah, well, you weren't there when she was pouting about him picking up bending techniques faster than her."
Toph considered this, admitting, "He does handle new ideas pretty quickly."
"And Katara's always been a painfully thorough person," Sokka explained, "So when it comes to bending, she's not as quick." He shrugged, adding with a less amused voice, "It was actually kind of annoying. I hate it when Katara pouts. She always gets kind of self-righteous about it."
Toph shrugged. She could say plenty of things about what she thought of Katara's attitude, sure, but Sokka had about fourteen years experience on her when it came to how Katara acted, so she imagined that anything she had to add would seem kind of juvenile in comparison.
"So," she began, because she could still feel the threatened conversation looming. "What did you want to talk about?"
She heard him suck in a breath. Then, sounding apprehensive, he said something that she wasn't expecting.
"Who are the bad men in the forest?"
Toph froze in shock, her eyes widening and her hands stilling their movement on the rocks. Before she could brace herself, the memory of the Wild Woman's death came back to her, and she felt her stomach curl in a mix of fear and disgust. She could practically feel the false memory of those mans' hands on her person, bruising and hurting, and though she managed to keep from actually moving, she felt herself shudder. She could sense them, like they were there leering over her, grabbing her, shoving her down, and--
She barely moved, but apparently her tension and expression were enough evidence for Sokka.
"Toph?" he asked again. "Look, I know you don't want to talk about it, but it might help--"
"No," she said sharply, "it won't."
Sokka hesitated, and for a moment, Toph thought he would try and barrage her into talking like Katara would have. But instead he said, "Why not?"
Toph didn't say anything for a long while, trying to keep the fake memories from infesting her thoughts. It was so stupid, and she knew it, and really, she should have been more scared by the memory of the wraith than by the waking dream, but the thing was, the wraith was dead. Aang had killed her; Toph had heard her die. And yeah, she had been scary, but Toph had gotten through it, and she was alive now.
But the thought of the men who raped and killed the Wild Woman, even though Toph knew it was a fake memory and she herself hadn't actually been touched -- it was too much. Not just because of the men themselves -- they had to be dead by now, even if they had gotten away with it --, but because there was nothing inherently wrong with them. They weren't evil spirits twisted by magic. Those men had been nothing other than regular, cruel men, and they had done unspeakable things to a young girl who had the sole misfortune of being a daughter of a cheating man.
And yeah, maybe the Wild Woman's story struck home a little. Toph didn't think her father earned dirty money, but neither had the Wild Woman. In the end, the Wild Woman had just been a spoiled rich girl who wasn't allowed an identity other than her father and fiancé, and was punished horribly for their crimes. Toph wasn't even sure if she could hate the Wild Woman. She did, of course, despise the wraith and what she had done, but if she thought about it, all Toph knew was that if she had been put in the same situation, she would have done the exact same thing. And the part that struck home was that if she hadn't run away, Toph knew that she would have been that girl. Daughter of the Beifong family, fiance of some other rich boy, existing as a part but not as a whole for the rest of her life.
"Well?" Sokka prompted after a bit, somehow managing to sound encouraging without being impatient.
Toph realized that he wasn't going to leave this be unless she gave him an answer. And while she could lie with the best of them, Toph wasn't sure if she could even manage a satisfactory answer that wasn't the truth.
So finally she asked him, "Do you know how the Wild Woman died?"
"She was murdered," Sokka replied slowly, "by those men who hated her father, right?"
"Yeah," Toph confirmed, asking again, "But do you know how she died?"
Sokka didn't reply, but Toph could tell from the way he shifted position -- one hand leaning on the ground, weight all to one side -- that he was giving her a puzzled look. Or a sad one, she couldn't be entirely sure. But she imagined from his hesitation that he was confused.
"I know," Toph said, gripping her knees with her hands and keeping her head bent down. She was sitting formally, her legs tucked under her and back straight, and resisted the urge to curl into a more comforting position. She continued, "The Wild Woman showed me, through a -- a dream or something. She showed me how she died."
"You... saw it?" Sokka asked, clearly not believing the words even as they came out of his mouth.
"I felt it," Toph explained. "It was like... Like it was happening to me."
Toph wasn't sure if she could really say the whole thing, not in front of Sokka, who she really kind of liked, actually, and who she had only known for a month or so. She didn't know if she could say to anyone, really. Maybe Katara, but that would only make the girl go all motherly, Toph was sure. She could tell her later, but right now, only five days after the attack? She couldn't. She only barely understood what had happened to the Wild Woman, to be honest, even if she could tell without knowledge of how wrong it had been. Her parents had never been forward about any sexual matters, and even Toph's brief experience among the tournament fighters at the Earth Rumble hadn't really exposed her to too much vulgarity. Even rough fighters found control over their mouths in front of a little girl, no matter how badly she could beat them at earthbending.
So Toph continued, before Sokka could say anything, by babbling, "I could feel them hurting me, and -- and hitting me and stuff, and then it was like I was freezing on the ground, and I couldn't move, and--"
She cut off, taking a breath and spreading her hands out in an exasperated, helpless gesture. The stones she had been spinning fell to the ground, motionless. She continued, "And I know it didn't actually happen, but it felt like it did, and those men were just -- they were just men! They weren't spirits or ghosts or whatever; they were just plain old cruel men, and they really, really hurt her."
Sokka was quiet as he listened, and when she finally finished, he keyed into the last word. "Hurt... the Wild Woman?"
"Yeah," Toph confirmed. "It was really bad. And I hate the wraith and what she did, because--" She swallowed, hating that she had to talk about this in front of the one member of the group who hadn't pissed her off yet, but she went on, "Because she really scared me, and I almost died, but that doesn't change the fact that I completely understand why she became a wraith. I completely get why she was that angry, and why she kept insisting that she was saving me and other maidens or whatever, and I just can't forget the way she died." She scrubbed at her arms, adding bitterly, "It feels like someone's constantly touching me or something."
"That's awful," Sokka said, and quickly clarified, "All of it, I mean. Including what happened to her. I hadn't really thought about the Wild Woman's past, being too busy, y'know, hating her and being really ticked off at her for taking you, but..." At this, he paused, and then simply ended with, "That sucks. A lot."
"Yeah," replied Toph. "It kind of does. And, well, that's why I've been kind of on edge."
"A little," Sokka said with a soft laugh, "But really? I'm impressed."
Toph blinked in confusion, making a bewildered face as she asked, "You are?"
"Yes," he said. "If I had been the one attacked by the wraith, I'm pretty sure I'd still be huddled in a little ball shaking. I mean, I just saw the wraith a couple of times -- she didn't even attack me directly, like she did you and Aang -- and I've still had a couple of nightmares." He stopped for a moment, considering, and then amended, "Though, to be fair, at least half of those nightmares involved Azula burning me alive, so it's kind of a mix."
Toph managed a grin at that, and shrugged as she said, "I don't even remember that fight, really. Just a bunch of fuzzy thoughts about dragons and fire."
"Oh, spirits, you were hilarious," Sokka told her, leaning back and laughing. "I mean, mostly in retrospect, 'cause at the time I was freaking out majorly, but now?" His body vibrated the ground as he shook his head from left to right. "Man, now I just think it's funny. I kept trying to reassure you and everything, and you just kept talking about fairy tales."
"Whatever," Toph said. "I still kicked ass."
"That you did," Sokka confirmed, ticking a finger at her and shifting as though he was giving her a solemn nod. "And I definitely was a fan of delirious you laying the smack down, not in the least because it meant I didn't die. I liked that part a lot."
Toph very nearly giggled at him, but managed to change it to a more respectable snort. The Blind Bandit did not giggle at boys acting ridiculous.
"Anyway," Sokka said, leaning forward again. "I know you don't want to talk about it much -- and I totally get that, trust me --, but I hope maybe telling me a little part of it helped. And you know if you ever need to go over it again, I'm always free. I mean, I'm the only one in the group who isn't trying to be Super Bender, so I might as well be the team therapist, you know?"
Toph raised a skeptical eyebrow. "A therapist?" she asked, just barely swallowing an amused snort. "No offense, but my family has totally made me go to therapists before, and you're nothing like that."
"Oh yeah?" Sokka challenged. "What are therapists like, then?"
"Well," began Toph, struggling to her feet and shaking out the numb feeling from her knees. "They're all pompous and old -- that's a must -- and they stare at you and ask really annoying questions like," and at this, Toph lowered her voice before continuing, with over-exaggerated vowels, "But how does that make you feel, little Miss Beifong?"
Sokka jumped to his feet and posed like Toph was, hunched over and -- she thought -- stroking his hairless chin. "Do tell me, have you ever felt that way befooooore?" he offered, mimicking her drawn out tone with a greater effect than Toph, as he could make his voice dip much lower.
"No, it needs to be more pompous, like you can hardly deign yourself to talk to me."
Sokka shifted a bit, and then said in an even snootier tone, "Could you tell me exactly how you felt when your feeling first overtook your feelings?"
Toph snickered at the improved tone and content, confirming, "Yep, that's it exactly!"
They stayed up on the mountain for the rest of the hour, making ridiculous impressions of various people until it was time to go down to dinner. And even if Toph hadn't told Sokka the whole truth of what had happened, it was as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She could tell him, if she wanted. He had listened to her fears and hadn't dismissed them or patronized her, and that was something that Toph hadn't ever really experienced.
Maybe this was what friendship was about. Sokka, Katara and Aang got on her nerves a lot, yeah, but they had come for her. They had stopped the wraith, saved her life, and listened to her fears, and not one of them had made her feel weak or foolish for any of it. They had been there for her.
And maybe there would come a time when Toph didn't want to keep the secret anymore. Maybe later she would feel strong enough to tell someone the whole truth of why the wraith had scared her so much. For now, however, it was enough to know that she had someone that she could tell, even if she wasn't ready.
And that was enough for her.
The fire was growing slowly smaller as Aang sat, picking at his rice and staring into the golden heat pensively. Katara's words were swimming around in his mind, warring with the gnawing pit in his stomach. He hated feeling responsible for another's pain, but even though he had Katara's logic to back him up, Aang couldn't help the worry of "What if...?" that sounded through his mind every time he saw Toph.
He knew it was dumb. Toph and Sokka had come back from the forest laughing, and she looked better than she had in days. Aang could feel the group settling back into their routine from before even as the worry tore at him; Katara was bugging Sokka and Toph to help clean up, even while Sokka kept trying to figure out the best route to get to Ba Sing Se from their current location. Toph grudgingly grabbed a pot and started scrubbing half-heartedly, not due to exhaustion but simply disinterest.
And then there was Aang, sitting alone by the fire, lost in thought.
Even as he sat, Aang couldn't help but hear Katara's advice repeating itself, urging him on to join the group. And from somewhere in the back of his mind, he could practically hear Toph's voice saying, "You call that facing it head on, Twinkletoes?" The warring options in his mind were enough to drive him mad.
Finally, Aang couldn't take the constant cycle of guilt and absolution.
"Hey, Toph," he called out, almost without thinking. He stood up and brought his plate over to Katara as he said, "Any chance we could get some training in tonight?" He wiggled his fingers over the ground with no effect, saying, "I don't think I remember how to earthbend anymore."
Toph tilted her head at him, clearly waiting for the worried query about her health that Aang refused to say. When it didn't come, she gave him an imperious look. "You forgot earthbending? Haven't you been doing your exercises?"
"Well, we've been flying for like, five days strai--"
"No excuse!" she snapped at him, but her tone was belied by the grin on her face. "Now come on, I feel some rocks with your name on it."
"Aye-aye, Sifu Toph," Aang said, smiling, and followed her back into the forest, where he knew there was plenty of good-sized rocks to practice with. On their way out, he could hear Sokka and Katara deliberating about the path of Ba Sing Se, and he knew that, despite how horrible the wraith had been, they were going to get through this.
END PART 7
WORD COUNT: approx. 8550
Well, that's the end. I hope you all enjoyed this story! Please review and tell me what you thought! I would really appreciate knowing how everyone felt about the story as a whole. So please shoot me a reivew. :)
Also, if anyone has a plot bunny or an idea for another story they'd like to see me write, feel free to request something in the reviews. I don't know if I'll have time to write every story, but I would like to at least give it a shot. It must include Toph, of course. ;P