Commentary: Here's the last of it! Sorry for the delay—life has been busy. However, I hope you've enjoyed the story. Especially you, Crossy. =)
Thank you all so much for reading!
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Route Complete
To Hell With Plans
It was well and truly dark when Aang and Katara crept through the gate and approached the gardens. In the sky a moon like half a lemon gleamed quietly—the nearby forest's nightsong of crickets rose in rippling concerto. Rubbing his shaven head as he came to them, the Avatar surveyed Toph and Sokka together. The tribesman still held his best friend and they sat slumped before the graves of her parents, dark lumps now in the evening's faint light. The Earthbender's head rested in a crook against Sokka's shoulder. Her eyes were closed, her jaw lax. Smudging streaks and small silt slurries marked where tears had dripped down and dried upon her face.
"Is she okay?" asked Aang.
Toph convulsed in the wan moonlight, throwing out an arm. The earth under Aang's feet lurched and shuddered obediently. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here," she snapped.
"Sorry, sorry!" Aang lifted his hands, the pair of them flared out like fans, and gesticulated anxiously. "I didn't mean—"
"Are you okay, Toph?" interrupted Katara. She moved forward and knelt on Toph's spare side, thus encasing the smaller woman in a Water Tribe sandwich. She nudged in close. Toph grunted, not quite protesting, and Katara reached for her hand and worried it between her own brown palms. Giving the tribeswoman what passed for a resigned look, the Earthbender at last laced her fingers in Katara's and gave in to huddling between the siblings. When Aang padded up in his petal-soft manner to rest his fingers in a curl atop her head, she let him.
Peace persisted as long as it needed to, and then Toph answered, "I'm okay." She wasn't, of course, but she smiled anyway and nodded toward the graves. "It's nice. Thin soil, loose on top, packed down at the bottom. Good earth." Her breath stuttered out. "It likes them." She stopped, considering. Sokka tightened his hold on her; Katara scooted closer, and Aang's fingertips, not unlike a chance breeze, made a daring caress through her hair. "It does like them," she reinforced. "They wouldn't like it—they'd probably think it was dirty, but it isn't, not really. It sustained them for years, growing things here in their garden, and now they're sustaining it and it's fitting, I guess , I mean…"
She trailed off. She was in the damnable limbo between crying and introspection, and frankly she was suited to neither. Sensing her misery, Sokka tightened his arm still more. His grip was uncomfortable but welcome all the same, and the Earthbender muttered, lifting a hand to grind its heel into her cheek, "I just wish I could see them one more time."
"Well, that would take a miracle," blurted Sokka immediately.
Katara jerked and stared at her brother, aghast. Aang made a noise like a squished badgerfrog. Even the twittery finch in the tree nearest the wall was too horrified to sing.
But Toph wrenched out a strangled, startled cackle that swelled to fill the night. Clinging fast to Sokka, she laughed in the same way a wound bleeds away infection, the sound cracked and crumbling and sincere most of all. When her throat was dry and her cheeks nevertheless wet again, she thrust her face into the tribesman's shoulder and admitted, "You're okay sometimes, Snoozles."
Sokka shrugged and smiled, bobbling the Earthbender's head. "I do what I can." With an absent thumb he smoothed moisture from her jaw. She exhaled noisily but permitted the attention, and after a moment he ventured, "What do you want to do now, Toph? If—if you want to do anything at all. You know. About, uhm." His mouth twitched. "This." And finally, "Us."
"Sokka!" Katara hissed, revolted. "You have the worst timing in the world."
"Hey, hey," protested her brother. "I'm just trying to be one half of a healthy couple here, Katara. I'm putting things out in the open. Discussing issues as they arise."
"Oh wow, is that what being an insensitive jerk is called nowadays?" seethed the younger sibling. "I'm sorry. I must have missed the memo—"
"Children," Toph suggested, "shut up."
Katara and Sokka shut up.
Tapping the latter's arm with her fingers, the Earthbender was silent a moment. Her features pinched as she grimaced, struggling with some inner conflict—watching her, Katara only just resisted the urge to slap her brother senseless. Toph looked utterly miserable. As far as the Waterbender was concerned, said misery was mostly Sokka's fault.
Before Katara could give in to the temptation of inflicting bodily harm upon the tribesman, Toph agreed bitterly, "You're right, Sokka."
Such words from his intended were so rare that Sokka jerked warily back a bit. Against his elbow the fabric of Toph's sleeve rasped. "I am," he voiced, and ventured next, stupefied, "…I am?"
"Sure," acknowledged Toph. She bared her teeth at him in a too-wide smile, the flash of her incisors cool in the yellow moonlight's faint fall. "Best to put things out in the open, right? Get it all out there. Isn't that what you just said?"
The sensation of sticking both feet in his mouth up to the ankles washed over Sokka as he hedged, "Yeah—"
"Yeah." Toph cocked her head toward him. Her lips pressed over her teeth, hiding their shine in a wobbling frown. Her eyes widened, slanted again, slid closed. Sucking in a sharp breath, she insisted, "Let's be honest, then. Do you want out of this or not?" She jerked a thumb toward the wall and presumably the forest beyond. "Just say the word. I'll leave."
"It's your house!"
"Well"—Toph waved a dismissive hand—"you've given my parents a lot of money over the past couple of years, so I guess I owe you. Maybe it isn't my house anymore. Maybe it's yours."
"I don't want it." Scowling now, Sokka eyed his best friend. "What the hell, Toph? Why are you talking like this? It's like you've transformed into an insecure princess or somethi—"
"Don't," snarled the Earthbender, "act like you didn't bring this up, you asshole."
"You did so! You wanted to talk about us," Toph reminded him hotly.
"Uh-huh," Sokka supplied, "right. What to do about us. I wanted—no. I still want to talk about that. Because your parents, I mean, they're dead, and—"
"And that technically means you're done here," said Toph. "With me."
Running his hand down his face with a groan, Sokka peeped through his fingers at the sullen Earthbender. "Toph," he reasoned, "answer me this, all right? Do you want to end our rela… our re-lay-shun… uhm. Our thing?"
The ensuing silence was stifling. Katara held her breath. Aang seemed to have slipped into a meditative coma, and Sokka—because he did possess one shred of tact—refrained from goading or prodding the shortest of their company for her answer. Dredging the fathomless mine that made up her soul, Toph grudgingly provided after some indeterminate stretch of time, "…no."
Katara exhaled and Sokka went on, "Good. Me neither. I love you, you know"—some distance away, a small mountain exploded—"and I'm pretty sure you feel the same, so just—just get the idea that I want to run away from you out of your head, okay?"
Immobile in the darkness, Toph said nothing at first. Ultimately, though, she acknowledged, "Fine." Her mouth worked and Sokka thought maybe she wanted to say something else, wanted to tack on another thought, but instead she pursued, "What exactly did you want to talk about, then, if you're not wanting to get rid of me?"
"Uh," and Sokka's voice slipped low, "kind of the exact opposite, actually." At the rise of Toph's eyebrow he clarified, "You told me a long time ago that you… you didn't want to marry me. And now you don't have to, since your parents… uh, can't… reinforce the idea that you should marry anyone, let alone me, so. That's off the agenda."
He paused, groping for words. Toph waited. A hopeful cricket chirped, the shadows on the unkempt lawn flickered, and Sokka resumed, "Call it selfish, but I was counting on them to keep—keep you with me for a while. One day they were going to get tired of Aang's letters and insist on us finally, you know, going through with stuff, sure, and if you still weren't ready then, no problem. I'm the plan guy." He said this mostly to himself and, with his head down, missed Toph's smirk. "I could've thought of something else at that point, I guess, to stall for more time, or maybe I could've acknowledged that it was necessary to let you…"
He trailed off. Toph's eyes met his by chance, held them an instant, shifted away again. "…let you go, if that's what you wanted," Sokka forced out. "But now"—he gestured to the graves, heedless of the fact that Toph couldn't see this—"they're gone and I thought I'd have more time, Toph, to convince you, but since I don't I was hoping we could tal—"
"Wait, wait, whoa." Frowning, the young woman smacked at Sokka's knee. Her open palm hit the joint and made a dull whut there. "Hold on. You thought you'd have more time to convince me to what?"
"To marry me," Sokka answered easily, and emphasized, "for real. No contract. No meddling. No weird bald go-betweens." Aang fidgeted and the tribesman finished, "Just me asking you and you saying… whatever you wanted to say."
"Oh." The Earthbender blinked.
"Huh." She delicately plumbed a nostril. Removed an obstruction. Flicked it off into the night (Katara was forced to duck).
"Mm-hmm," Sokka intoned.
"Okay then!" Slapping her hands down on the cool lawn, Toph smiled and shrugged. "I'm convinced. Is that it? Great! Let's go."
She stood. Her elbow caught Katara in the face—"My eye!" yelped the Waterbender—and her skull rocketed into Aang's chin. This caused him to bite his tongue and provoked from the Avatar a wounded keen. Heedless of the turmoil, however, Toph spun on a heel to storm off toward the estate's gate.
But, "Hey!" Sokka called. He staggered to his feet and stumbled after his best friend. "Hey, wait a sec! Did you just—"
He tripped. The lawn undulated immediately up to cushion his fall and he grasped at Toph's ankles, desperate, writhing first through a cluster of prickleweeds and next over an anthill. "Did you just agree to marry me?" he demanded.
She stopped. Sokka stared up at her, his hands affixed still about one of her calves. The muscles in it flexed, rippled, and then she turned and hunkered down in front of him. Her elbows fell atop her thighs and her fingers dangled between them, the tips mere inches from Sokka's brow. Even in the thin moonlight he could tell her cuticles were filthy.
"What?" she asked. "Having second thoughts already?"
"No." Sokka rocked onto his knees and rejoined, sullen, "But you know, a few ants just bit me on the ass. Left cheek, Toph."
"Sounds like a personal problem." Her face was suddenly very close to his. "Back there," she began brusquely, "you said." Her gumption faltered. "You said," she attempted again, and then looked at him helplessly, or what passed for looking.
"I said," he started, and whatever else he intended to add was lost in the crush of Toph's mouth against his own. He lifted his hands, startled, and she clutched at them as she lunged against him. She was heavy and weirdly muscled and her knee sank into his vulnerable bits, but years of sorta-dating Toph had conditioned him toward durability. With only the smallest wince he returned her embrace. He managed to snake an arm around her eventually too.
"Get a room," groaned Katara, stomping past them and nursing with the contents of her waterskin the beginnings of a beautiful black eye. "C'mon, Aang. We'll go wait somewhere else while they"—her tone was two parts disgusted and one part indulgent—"frisk."
The Waterbender's companion nodded. He paused after a few steps, though, to survey his other two friends. Noting in silent satisfaction the single coil their shadows made across the lawn, Aang allowed himself a grin before he scurried off after Katara and left the gardens altogether.
Meanwhile, Toph pulled reluctantly back for air and set her hands to work on Sokka's wardrobe—or rather, relieving him of it. She staggered upright too and yanked him with her, and with her fingers fumbling over his sleeve she insisted, "Take me somewhere. Somewhere else. And show me you meant what you said." Ducking her head, she hid her flushed face from him and finished, "Damn it, Sokka, why does your shirt have so many buttons?"
Sokka considered. He looked at the empty house and thought, No, not there, and then at the front gate. No, too sister-y. His heart thumped. Toph's nails discovered the seam in his collar and, with a sound of relish, she ripped the garment free. Buttons flew everywhere. The shirt fell to the lawn in a blue puddle and Sokka found abruptly that hey, look at that, his own hands had somehow managed to strip away Toph's vest. Awesome.
"C'mon, Plan Guy," Toph persisted into the skin of his neck, and bit it for good measure. "Make with the magic and move."
Sokka smiled. He had no real idea of what to do, no flash of inspiration but for one. Struck by a memory and its advice colored in candleflame, he said cheerily, "Only the blind may lead the blind," and took Toph's hand. By way of the back gate, he led her out into the night.