In Lieu of Hibernation
Late fall settles over the world, heavy and colder on Kyoshi Island than Toph is comfortable with. She grouses good-naturedly to Sokka and Suki, more for their amusement than anything else; Sokka starts talking about inventing shoes that will keep Toph's feet warm while letting her see. Suki suggests Toph stay in bed, tapping her arm with a closed fan, warmed by proximity. The idea passes over Sokka, who's measuring Toph's feet with excessive vigor - it doesn't, however, pass Toph, who handles the frustrated blush by punching Suki soundly.
"What?" she laughs. "There's no shame in hibernation, Toph."
But they don't live together, anyway. Toph does not let her shoulders slump when she marches home.
The first snow storm is one of the worst things Toph can remember from the past four years - she can count on one hand the mornings that were more aggravating. Ever since the war ended, she inevitably wound up holed up in the Fire Nation this time of the year for one reason or another (two weddings, one uprising, and one very long round of peace treaties), which she'd appreciated, certainly, but not as much as she does in hindsight with freezing toes and constant sniffling.
Sure she's been to the South and North poles, but at least then she'd never woken up alone, surrounded on all sides by muted earth, the sensation of just-waking never quite resolving itself into something solid. Toph bundles herself in as many blankets as she can and sits just inside her house, scowling out at Kyoshi Island over her porch.
Suki comes to her mid-morning, smelling of sweat and sweet paint. "I hear you've been threatening everyone who passes by," she teases, smoothing Toph's bangs back.
"Yeah, yeah, they'll get over it," Toph grumbles, sniffing. She swats at Suki's gloved hand, which is inordinately cold; persistent, Suki loops an arm around her shoulders and pulls her close. "Seriously. You guys are crazy. You know, my family has this house up by Ba Sing Se, not by mountains or the ocean or anything cold and bleh -"
Suki interrupts her with a laugh. "You don't have to stay."
Toph shifts against her, careful to hold the blankets together. "No," she replies, handling her words with utmost care. "But you guys would get bored without me." It's removed enough from a question that Suki doesn't say anything; it's close enough to one to make her lean her head against Toph's.
Sokka's shoes are effective, sure, but they're incredibly uncomfortable, too, and there's no way to prevent the bottoms - which are solid rock - from getting cold. Still, Toph's not going to complain. They're useful, and at least she doesn't have to hole herself up for the next five months. He and Suki take to inviting her to stay at their house for the night, which she does after making them promise to not try any funny business. (Sokka quickly takes to making jokes once they're all curled in the furs, ticking at her ribs and cackling when she tells him to knock it off, Chuckles.)
By the end of the first month, Toph finds herself not noticing the snow so much.
Something Toph doesn't expect is the sound of snow falling in early morning, when the world is silent but for the whispers of sky touching down. It's ethereal, soothing in a deep way as she brushes her body closer to Sokka's and listens past his snores to hear the world. Some mornings she can feel Suki watching her, can feel the hastening of breath and heartbeat drumming at her back that proves she's not the only one who's left dreams behind.
She lets her think she doesn't know (and the mornings stand between them like a cherished secret).
The longer the winter wears on, the more Toph finds to appreciate.
For instance: The smells stretch farther. Wood burning finds its way past her senses to worm its way into her chest, lighting her up, making the fuzzy edges of snow-entrenched buildings bright.
And the casual way Suki and Sokka share their warmth and lives with her, too, is something that is now more than the sum of its parts. Her chest aches with the swell of love she feels, still unfamiliar after all of these years, pure acceptance translating straight back. There's no space for hidden things when they lay together, and like the long sunsets stretching over Appa's saddle, Toph is unafraid of letting her defenses fade out.
But also, there is: Feeling the quiet struggle of resting things under the earth; the clarity crisp air brings to every jolted conversation; the feel of frost crumbling under her fingertips, a benign snapping so similar to the obedience of earth bucking under her.
When asked, Toph only offers fond complaints, laced with enough bite to keep them wondering.
(Okay, so maybe winter's not so bad - but that's still a secret, for now.)
Warmer winds ripple through, gradually.
The snow turns to sluggish water, trailing off into the bay.
Buried seeds, sleeping so faithfully, rouse.
In the Spring, Toph finds herself laying on her back in a fresh patch of grass.
She finds herself letting Suki press slow, casual kisses against her lips.
She finds herself wondering where next winter will take her, unconcerned.