Commentary: Uhm, I love Tokka. Since I also love writing quickfics based on random bits of vocabulary, I thought I could, you know, have the two merge. I'll do as many of these as I can. I'm not promising a hundred—I mean, I know some people do that—but let's say… at least ten.
This one is set not long after The Serpent's Pass.
Hope you enjoy it!
Word ONE: Schooling
Wsssshk. Wsssshk. Wsssshk.
Rocking to and fro on the balls of her feet, Toph lets the sand wallow away from her and sways to the sounds of the nearby ocean. Her world ends where it begins, a giant blur of noise and pressure and—and fear.
Toph is afraid of the ocean—of her world's end. In the water, she is both blind and helpless.
Footsteps behind her, muffled, slipping. Skkk as fingernails scrape the bark of a leaning tree. "Toph?" asks Katara. The bell of the Waterbender's voice drifts across the space between them, and Toph can see the smile in it under the press of her heels. She rocks harder, forcing the hard pads deep into the sand, and Katara's smile brightens briefly before it snaps out of her perception altogether.
"Sugar Queen," acknowledges Toph. Her face is still pointed toward the ocean. A breeze blows in across its waves and throws the scent of salt against her. She licks her lips to taste it too.
Katara drifts up alongside her, slightly to the right. Her elbow brushes Toph's. "You wanted to meet me here." A hitch in the other girl's voice—a pause. Concern leaks over her words like the water she is so adept at bending. "What's up?"
There is an unspoken Why here? in Katara's question, but Toph's ears are better than most and she hears it. She smirks. The expression holds for a few seconds. Wobbles. Sobers. Her insides boil and the ocean sloshes and fear, fear, fear gnaws at her, but—
"I need a favor," says Toph, aiming for nonchalance. She rubs her thumb over the nails of her other fingers, sfff-sfff. The dirt beneath those nails sings to her.
"A favor," attempts Katara dubiously.
"Echo, echo." Toph turns, putting the waves at her back. Katara's outline fills her head, all smooth slender strength and small curves. She is a walking stream. "You gonna offer your services or not, Sweetness? I haven't got all night, you know."
Toes buried in the sand, Toph sees Katara smile again—no, it's bigger. She's grinning. The expression eats up her whole face and Toph imagines that it's doing what people who see with their eyes call shining. "Consider my services offered," Katara agrees. She continues, "…I think. What can I do for you, Toph?"
Despite spending the whole day planning this, rehearsing the request over and over in her head, Toph finds the well of words in her throat has suddenly gone dry. Her mouth opens, closes, opens again. Glub-glub-glub. Damnit.
Katara shifts closer. "Wow," she observes. Her sleeve trickles against Toph's wrist. "Is it that bad?"
Pulling her lips back from her teeth, the Earthbender sends her breath out in a hiss. She grates, "Teach. Uh." Her hands clench into fists and the sand around them stirs up small whirlpools. "T-teach. Me."
Katara is so close now that Toph feels her blink. "Teach you what?" she coaxes.
Toph tries to—no, wants to be angry at her friend because she's not a child and she doesn't need to be spoken to like one, but—
Katara's voice is so soft, so gentle, so—so lacking in pity and so loving that—
"Teach me to swim," Toph blurts. Heat crawls over her face and builds a hut on it and has a family there. She tacks on miserably, "Please."
Ta-tmp. Ta-tmp-tmp-tmp-tmp-tmp-TA-TMP-TMP-TA-TMP-TMP. That's what Katara's heart sounds like as she digests Toph's words—as she realizes just what it is the blind Earthbender wants.
"Are you sure?" Katara pursues. "I know it's hard for you—"
"It's harder," Toph cuts in, "knowing that if I fall in some—some stupid wimpy puddle, or… or something, I'm gonna drown in it because I don't know how to fling my arms around all special-like and—"
She stops abruptly because the ocean is sucking the sand away from her just like it tried to suck away her life before, and horror makes her stomach do a queer, sickening flip-flop-splut. Urgh. That's terrible.
"And," she resumes, hand splayed over her belly in an effort to quell its bubbling tantrum, "you know, dying would be kind of craptastic, so…"
"So you want me to teach you to swim." Katara's voice sounds about as gooey as tar. Toph's blush, fading before, roars right back into place.
"There's an echo out here, seriously," she mutters, scrubbing her palm over her burning cheek. "But yeah. Teach me how to—uhm. Not die. In the water." Manners, Toph. "Please," she says again.
"Echo, echo," replies Katara. She softens the tease with, "You got it." She chuffs her knuckles over the other Bender's shoulder and Toph leans into the touch.
Between the surges of the ocean's unending gurgle the Earthbender admits, "You're okay, Sweetness."
Five minutes later, ankle-deep in the surf with her legs planted in a wobbly V and her hands clenched over Katara's own outstretched fingers, Toph fiercely recants her statement.
"I hate you," she seethes. Froth nibbles merrily at her bare legs. "I hate you, Katara. I hate you. I hate you. I. Hate. YOU."
Katara laughs and Toph briefly considers embedding a few bits of shale in the Waterbender's more tender areas. Then she remembers oh, right, she's in the OCEAN, and the sand beneath her feet keeps moving and shifting and her head is full of half-formed muddy pictures of—of…
She assumes—hopes—all those little things floating in the water around them are fish.
"Just a little farther," Katara murmurs. Giggles eek from between her bitten lips. "I've got you, Toph. Come on."
"You've got my hands," Toph snarls. She tightens her grip to emphasize this. The frail bones in Katara's fingers creak.
Wincing, her friend acknowledges, "Yes—and the rest of you. If need be I can bend all the water in this cove. So just calm down and trust me a little, okay?"
Eyes wide, sweat dripping from the tip of her nose, Toph tries. Hard. Really, really hard. She even scoots one foot the tiniest bit forward. But then something prickly caresses her thigh in the most intimate way and, with a shriek, the shorter girl abandons all pretense of participating in this happy horseshit and hurls herself back toward sweet safe sturdy dry land.
"Oh for—!" Katara snorts. She sways—wsssshk, Toph hears—and a loop of seawater rises to encircle the Earthbender's waist. It brings her, bobbing and bitching the whole while, back to its waiting mistress.
"There are—there are things in here!" proclaims the younger of the pair, her normally even tone ratcheted into a panicked screech. "One just, ugh—it touched me and it had these, these little scratchy bits on it—!"
"Your hands," interrupts Katara. The loop of seawater dissolves and an arm replaces it, sliding snugly into place around Toph's ribs. Toph can feel the Waterbender's heartbeat throbbing into her armpit, ta-tmp-tmp-ta-tmp-tmp. "Hold them out."
Toph does, petulant. She regrets it almost immediately, because Katara drops the scratchy scary thing that touched her leg before right onto her vulnerable palms.
"Yeeech!" Toph, ever the pragmatist, tries to throw it. Katara's arm tightens, though, and draws her in close. Her mouth finds Toph's temple and for the first time ever, the smaller girl actually feels her friend smile. Seeing it through her feet and knowing its shape on her skin are two very different things.
Sunrises are probably different in the same way, Toph realizes.
Katara soothes, "It's a plant, that's all." Her fingers press over Toph's, urging the other girl's hands closed. The thing—the plant—makes a sound like squick-squick between the Earthbender's calluses. It's rubbery and spongy and more than slightly awful. "It's called kelpweed."
"It's disgusting," decides Toph, fervent.
Katara's lips twitch and she breathes into the low furl of Toph's sweat-soaked bangs, half-giggle, half-sigh. "Funny you think so now, after eating it in stew almost every night this week."
As though the ocean and the constantly moving ground under her feet weren't making Toph sick enough.
"…you're joking." Please be joking.
Smk-smk goes Katara's mouth as she mimics the way Toph slurped down her supper the previous evening. "Oh, not even."
"If you throw up on me," threatens the taller girl, "I'll let go of you."
Toph stiffens: and seriously, Earthbenders know the intricacies of stiff things, so she ends up getting pretty straight and rigid and pointy. "You wouldn't," she hisses.
"No," Katara agrees, "I wouldn't, but don't throw up on me. And calm down." Those two words shake in their solemnity. "Here." She plucks the plant from Toph's hands and tosses it sidelong. Spack—it lands somewhere far away and probably sinks back beneath the water, where it will wait to fondle the thigh of the next blind defenseless Earthbender unfortunate enough cross its path.
In the next instant, Katara's hand returns to Toph: folds over her hip.
"Now," she insists, "you asked me to teach you to swim, and I'm going to teach you to swim. So"—she barrels on before Toph can protest—"first, you need to learn to float."
Toph asks Katara rudely just how she is supposed to accomplish that.
Of course, Katara is eager to explain. She also proves to be the sort of teacher that favors physical demonstrations—Toph would be so lucky to find that out firsthand. Curling her fingers shamelessly in Toph's hair just behind the tight black bun, the Waterbender pulls the smaller girl's head back and begins to kneel. They sink together toward the waves.
"Relax," she orders. "Let your limbs go loose."
Toph's shoulders touch the water and she is abruptly everything but loose. Her spine arcs and her body bends away from the ocean's lapping surface in a trembling U. It takes every bit of temerity and strength she has not to scream or claw at the air. She bites out, heels digging into the slippery sand beneath the waves in a last-ditch effort to stay aloft, "What are you doing, Sweetness?"
"Showing you how to do that float thing we were just discussing," Katara assures her friend, and pulls a little with one hand, pressing with the other. Toph's feet leave the sand. Her world winks into blackness and—
Water and Katara's heartbeat rush into her ears, both undeniable, both steady, both maddening. Arms stuck out like stalactites, Toph growls a word that makes Katara's eyelid spasm.
The Waterbender corrects through gritted teeth, "It's not that bad."
"You know," Toph replies, tone high and clipped and two shades short of utterly petrified, "you're right. You're absolutely right. It's ten SPIRITS-DAMNED times worse—"
"Toph." There's something then about the way Katara says her name. Something stonelike. Something rocky. Something hard. Toph recognizes and respects it immediately. "Stop"—and Katara takes a calming, steadying breath—"being such a baby."
The waves churn. Katara doesn't apologize and Toph understands she doesn't deserve an apology anyway, because she asked for both the lesson and the reprimand.
"Fine," the Earthbender manages approximately thirty seconds later. She's still scared, but she's angry too: determined to prove to Katara that she isn't a baby. "So. I'm—I'm floating here. Right? Except you're—"
She frowns, stormy.
"You're—uh. Touching my butt."
"Why are you touching my butt?"
"Believe it or not," Katara relates in a dramatic oh-I-am-so-wise voice, "swimming lessons sometimes involve grabbing the great Toph Bei Fong's butt." And then, words all sincerity, "I'm helping you float. If you want me to let you go, though—"
"Hold tight to those cheeks, Sweetness," Toph demands. "Real tight."
Once she has resigned herself to being groped by weird ocean plants and her friendly neighborhood Waterbender, Toph admits—in the privacy of her own head—that swimming isn't really so bad. It lends her a weightlessness she never has on land, and while she is blind here, well and truly blind, it's sort of soothing to just bob around and let the currents and eddies take her with them. Katara's a good teacher, a kind teacher, a patient teacher. She manages to convey to Toph that sight, whether by eye or by sole, isn't what matters when one is submerged in liquid.
"You just have to listen to it," murmurs the taller Bender, guiding Toph's limbs through practice strokes. Wut-spack-wut-spack and the younger of the pair is getting it, just maybe, propelling herself forward on top of the waves. "You just have to feel it. And if you do those things, Toph, you'll know where the water's going. Follow it and you'll be okay."
It helps that they're still in the shallows. Katara's feet are stirring up sand, fans of the stuff drifting and dissolving and reforming again all around them. There's too little of it to let Toph see and she can't grip enough with her feet to try to bend it either, but its presence comforts, encourages her. Soon she doesn't need Katara's hands to stay afloat. The sand and the waves buoy her.
And when they go deeper and the ocean floor is too far away to feel even with her legs stretched straight down, the pale girl flails her arms and kicks her feet, listening and feeling, and—
She's okay, just like Katara said.
Two hours later, Katara half-drags Toph from the ocean. They sit shoulder to shoulder at the base of a dune, thoroughly soaked. The Earthbender trembles, exhausted; by the slump of her spine, Katara is tired too. Plip-plip-plip sigh droplets of seawater, pattering down into the warm sand around them. It's taken repetition, persistence, and once even a pinch in a precarious place, but now?
Now Toph can float. And tread water.
Because she must be feeling all motherly and proud over her newest pupil's accomplishments, Katara drops an arm around Toph to squeeze her. The air leaves the Earthbender's lungs in a growled uffff.
Katara compliments her, "You did very well today."
"Yeah, yeah." Try as she might, Toph can't get her voice above a mumble. Her limbs don't want to listen to her either—they wiggle like overcooked noodles, useless. Shivering, she leans against Katara and closes her eyes.
"Thanks, Sweetness," manages the Earthbender at last.
Haaaah as Katara draws in a breath to say something—but then she doesn't offer even a word, because it isn't necessary, and that's just fine by Toph. Supported by her friend, lulled by the sounds of the ocean and Katara's steady heartbeat, the new swimmer dozes.
She comes awake with a start, though, after a startling and hopeful realization.
"Hey," she pursues, "hey. Sugar Queen." Seizing Katara's arm, Toph shakes it. She demands, "Do swimming lessons always involve butt-touching?"
Katara chuckles groggily and agrees, "If the person learning to swim is as apt to sink as you, Toph, then butt-touching is pretty standard. Why?"
"Oho," demurs Toph, "just checking to make sure you weren't trying to molest me, is all." She pats Katara's arm. "Don't you worry about it, yeah?"
Unbeknownst to Toph, Katara rolls her eyes. They drift into quiet again. They drowse. Katara drools into Toph's hair—Toph slobbers on Katara's neck.
Aang, who is the one to find them later, takes one look at the mess they make and opines, "Yurg."
Two days later…
Skkksh. Skkksh-wtt. Skkksh. Skkksh-wtt.
Ambling into the clearing with her arms crossed behind her head, Toph tosses a grin sideways over the flickering campfire. "Snoozles," she greets the warrior sharpening a stick nearby the low flames. "What's shakin'?"
"I," Sokka proclaims, brandishing his makeshift spear at her, "have just crafted an amazing weapon." He rattles it against the edge of his boot, well aware his companion can't see the result of his labors.
Toph reasons, "Sounds like a stick."
Twitching, Sokka rattles the sti—err, spear a little harder. "No, no—see, it's a javelin—"
"I don't see anything, Meathead."
"Ri-iiiiight. Here. Allow me to... illuminate things for you." As much as it pains him to release his wondrous creation so soon after its conception, Sokka drops the spear earthward. With the tip of his boot he rolls it demonstratively to and fro. A small cloud of dust rises—so do his eyebrows. He pumps them. "Soooo?" he wheedles. "You see…?"
"A pointy stick," Toph clarifies. Ignoring Sokka's immediate and vehement whines of protest, she leaps over said stick and flumps down next to its maker. "What were you planning on doing with it?"
Heaving a long-suffering sigh—spirits, no one around here appreciates his talents—Sokka prods Toph's ankle (carefully) with the spear. He admits, "I was gonna go hunting with it. You know. For meat."
"Ah-huh." Toph inserts a finger into a nostril and begins to excavate. "What kinda meat?"
"Boarcupine," lusts Sokka. Under her toes Toph feels his heartbeat escalate, bmp-bmp-bmp-da-bmp, so different from his sister's. Only the boomeranging moron would get in a twist over food. "It's a regional delicacy," he tells her. "I've always wanted to try i—"
She sniffs, removes the finger, and rubs it on the ground between them, creating a small trench there.
"—aaaand you don't care."
"…'course not." Grumbling, Sokka looks down at the spear in his hands. This time it's only a stick to him, and he breaks it easily over a knee and tosses the two pieces into the flames, where they split and crackle and burn. A grin plays over Toph's face in the firelight.
They sit together for several minutes, companionably quiet. Toph picks her nose a few more times.
At last, though, when she has deemed the caverns in her sinuses clear, she jabs Sokka in the ribs and murmurs, "Katara's teaching me to swim."
"Aang told me he thought so. Said he found you two on the beach the other night." The tribesman shifts, scct-kk, and his hip hits Toph's. The vibrations from his movements tell Toph that he's looking at her and rubbing the spot she elbowed at the same time. "She insisted, huh?"
"Wrong." Polishing her fingertips on the edge of her tunic, Toph revises, "I asked."
Sokka makes a sound in the back of his throat that expresses surprise and pride simultaneously. It conveys good for you. Because saying such a thing aloud would be condescending, the youth keeps his mouth shut. He doesn't ask why Toph has chosen to learn to swim either.
Sokka's just good like that.
Ten of his heartbeats later, Toph allows, "We were going to do a lesson tonight, but…"
But Aang and Katara are off gliding somewhere, their giggles soft and sweet on the wind. Toph might be blunt, obnoxious, brisk, obstinate—but cruel she is not, and she refuses to interrupt their fun when they've damn well earned it.
Besides, Toph's got a pretty good brain cooking in her hard little head, and she's pretty sure that—
"I can teach you." Sokka bounds to his feet, drmm-drmmm, and spins in the clearing to face the Earthbender. "I mean, hey! I'm no Waterbender, but I"—and he thumps his chest, sending pleasurable fizzles up through Toph's feet, ankles, thighs—"happen to be a champion swimmer. In fact, I taught Katara all she knows."
—she's got him.
"I dunno," hedges the girl, digging her toes into the soft silt nearby the fire. While it's warm and wonderful against her skin, it's nothing like Sokka's hssssh-haaaah breathing or his excited pulse. She's delighted to know she has more impact on him than the idea of roast boarcupine. "I mean, I'm not that great at it yet—"
His hands on her hands, tugging her upright. They're so unique, his fingers, chapped in some places and smooth others: strong and supple, like branches. They bend around her where it matters. "All the more reason I should teach you!" he declares. "You won't be the best 'til you learn from the best!"
"Such reasoning," she grouches, but he doesn't hear her. He whisks her away from the fire—krrk-cch the flames whisper, a hot goodbye—and across the scrubland toward the ocean's heady throb.
She lies when he asks her how far her lessons have progressed. "I'm still pretty bad at floating," she manages, trying her best to sound sheepish. "On my back and stuff. I sink."
They're in the water now, the waves cool and calm around them, the wind looping through the dunegrass in a faint saaaaa. Sokka's hands close on her hip and shoulder, stars of heat.
"No problem," he says. He dips her—efficiently and immediately and with a quickness that makes Toph gasp. This is not a Katara lesson, his fingers tell her as they slide beneath her. This is a Sokka lesson.
But as he assures her, "I've got you, Toph—don't worry!" and his palm comes to rest on a very particular place on her person, the Earthbender only grins heavenward and thanks the spirits that Sokka doesn't mind being her teacher.