DISCLAIMER: I don't own Avatar. I make no profit off of this. I'm merely a fan.
WARNINGS: AU- as in Sokka is Lin's father. Mature! content: sexual and suggestive themes. Language! Some head-canon concerning the Forgetful Valley. OCs.
Ask anyone, and they'll tell you being blind is a curse. And maybe, in some ways, they're right.
People fear the dark, the unknown, what they can't see. I say if you can't get comfortable in the dark, there was never much hope for you anyway.
Learn a little, live it a little, and what used to be your biggest disadvantage might turn into one of your most useful strengths, if you know how to tap into it. It's what I always told the rookies-in-training back at the Justice Building, back when they were broken and tired and couldn't bend a coin to save their mother's life.
Seemed to work. Because I could feel their gazes on my face, and I didn't have to wonder what they were looking at.
I can't see stars. I don't know what it's like to look at a face, a friend, a lover. I can't appreciate how the ocean never seems to end or how Katara says a mountainside looks like a watercolor painting in the evening. Or how colors make a mood, make something pop, make something beautiful instead of plain.
But that's alright. I don't need to see it to know how to love it.
Lin starts to cry, and that's when I stop pretending I'm dreaming. She's quiet at first. Soft. If I wasn't lying completely still maybe I wouldn't have heard her for a good couple of minutes. The whimpers turn into little grunts of anger before she lets loose with gusto, and I grin.
It's like we're linked. My mind and my body know when to go to her, when she needs me. Already, I feel a familiar tug at my breasts as my milk lets down.
I get out of bed, know exactly when I'm in the hallway because I can't feel that itchy-as-all-hell bamboo mat under my feet. Just clean, cool wood. I turn left, go all the way down, know exactly when to reach out for the door because it never stays completely open; it always slides a little until it's left open a crack.
She's wailing now. Little monster's mad at me.
The crib is by the window. The crazy old widow named Fu who sells fish down the road and plays Mah Jong in the park with her goatdog on Sundays gave it to me. "Used be my Ling's. Had it facing the window, so she could see the sunshine. " Fu's girl Ling died six years ago at thirty-three. So when I took it, I made sure to put it by the window.
Six paces past the door, and I reach down slowly, gently scooping Lin up. She kicks out, stretches, and she feels warm and a little sticky from sweat in my arms, even though she's only in a diaper. It's too damned hot to put anything else on her.
By now, the milk's seeped through my shirt, and my chest aches from it. She doesn't stop crying, even when I sit us down in the rocking chair and try to place her, to get her to latch. But she's angry now, and I feel her stiffen in my arms.
I don't know when I last slept. Really slept, when I'd knock out sprawled over the bed with my mouth wide open and wake up feeling like I'd been asleep for days and could stay awake for years. My nerves are frayed, and when you're alone and your kid can't sleep for more than an hour at a time, everything tends to piss you off some way or another. Like how my shirt's all damp from the milk and I don't like the feeling, but I forget about it when Lin latches on and stops crying. It's like her own lullaby, her little sighs and hiccoughs and sucks and pulls. I lean back in the rocking chair and sigh.
I love these moments.
I'm sure someone would tell you not being able to look at your child was a curse if they ever knew one. But…I see her. I really do. I see her when I hold her close, and she's so small, so soft, so fragile, like a baby bird cradled in the crook of my arm. I see her when she cries, when she gurgles and sighs. When I feed her and listen to her lullaby. When her tiny hands clutch at my clothes, my hair, because she still wants to know I'm there.
I see my daughter, and she is beautiful.
I smile, and I can feel it in my bones, in my chest, swelling and bursting, little drops of sunshine. Love is a funny thing. Who knew an emotion could be so powerful. And I used to think anger and some damned good muscle was all you needed to move mountains.
Lin's stopped nursing by now, but I don't stop rocking. I could put her down, trudge back to bed and take my chances, but instead I let myself sleep just the way we are. Somewhere along the way, I fall asleep. Start dreaming.
When a blind person dreams, they see things. Just not in the way you think. It's a warped sense of reality, as your mind pieces together your idea of the world until it grows into something more. In my dreams I see outlines stark against and bright against the blackness of my eyelids, just like when I'm awake.
In my dream, there are voices. My voice. His voice. Low, deep, husky. The vibrations of his baritone make the air seem to quiver. It goes right through me, fills me up, and I don't want to let him go. So I hold on tight.
His hands are rough and calloused. Good hands. Gentle hands. Hands that have seen war and spite, love, friendship, and the rebirth of nations. Some of it we rebuilt together. It's the softest touch I've ever felt.
I can feel him, hard against my thigh, and I know what's coming, because he's shaking, just a little, and his touches become clumsy, desperate. His mouth is hot against mine, and I'm kissing him so fiercely our teeth graze and click.
I don't want to let go.
I want him. I don't care about the consequences. Not right now. Just give me this one night.
I'm clinging to him. I'm clinging to him like driftwood as I'm rocked against the sea of our bodies as we mold and crash together. His back is slick with sweat under my fingers. The bones of his hips are sharp and ruthless against my own.
He's breathing in my ear. Toph. Oh God.
He's so close. So close that I think we'll melt right into each other when we crash again.
If I could see color, I think it'd be like being able to look at Sokka in the eye for the first time. If I could feel it, I think it'd feel like Sokka's body against mine, so close I can't tell which heartbeat is mine.
There's sunlight on my face, and I scowl. I slept in the chair all damn night, and my neck aches, my back hurts, but Lin is sleeping and I don't want to move. Her little fingers are curled in my shirt, her face still nuzzled near my breast. She's quiet, dreaming. And then I realize I'm alone, awake in the rocking chair, remembering my own dreams.
It happens then; the inevitable pull and tug that rips at the heart I wish I didn't have for him. It eats away at my insides and curdles my blood with poison that leaves me aching and tired, so tired. I hate it. I loathe it. I'm above it. I need to be. And not just for myself.
If I could, I would never dream of him again. If I could, I would rip out of the parts of me that still want to cry over him when I touch Lin. I hate me when I think of him. But I never do it. Cry over him. I mean, I'll be damned if I shed a single tear.
Lin starts to stir, and I remember why all my tears have turned to dust.
My daughter is beautiful. She is beautiful because I love her. She is beautiful…
Because she is his.
It's noon, and I'm trying to sleep because Lin decided she could give it a rest for a minute, when someone knocks at the door.
I almost don't get up. Let whoever the hell it is knock their heart out because I'm fucking tired and they can come back some other time. But then I start to think they'll just wake up Lin, so I rise to get the door, cursing under my breath and waiting for Lin to scream.
When I open the door, a part of me wishes I hadn't.
"Toph, it's me." Katara still sounds the same, and I wonder why I think she wouldn't. It's been almost a year, not a century, but it gets me just the same. I wish she would go away, I wish she would tell me she's missed me and ask me where the hell I've been.
But I don't say anything, not right away, and neither does she. I think she's waiting for me to invite her in.
"Toph," she tries again, and this time her voice is quieter, unsure, and I can hear the tremor in it. I want to feel bad, but I don't let myself.
I sigh. "Why are you here?" Better to get right to the point.
She doesn't miss a beat. "You've been gone a long time, Toph. I'm not going to sit around anymore while you lock yourself away out here. I think it's time you came back-"
"No." I don't need to see to know the edge in my voice made her take a step back, made her cringe. I'm filling the doorway, and I know my glare is heated enough to singe away all the nice she's trying to throw at me.
"Toph, please." I hate that her voice has grown softer still. Some days, I really miss her, but not today.
"I'm not going. I have a life here now, and I left behind at least one damned good man to take my place. The Council wouldn't have an issue if they'd take their heads out of their asses-"
"Aang needs you back."
I snort at this. "Then Twinkle Toes can come find me and try to drag me back there himself! I need a good laugh anyway."
"Toph-" Now she's trying to sound stern. I want to snort again, in that loud obnoxious way she hates, and say please.
Lin chooses that moment to cry.
"Dammit! Now look at what you've done. Do you know how long it took to put her to sleep?" I'm irritated as fuck today, and I don't spare Katara the brunt of it, doesn't matter how long it's been since I've heard her voice, had her company. Yeah, my mood's black, but so's my world, so it's all good.
I stomp off, my first mistake leaving the door wide open. I make my way past the kitchen and living room, go down the hall. Soon enough Lin is in my arms. I bounce her. Doesn't work. Huffing, I try to nurse her. When that doesn't work, I check the diaper I swear I just changed. No dice. Her cries are becoming more insistent, and I have no freaking clue what to do. I bounce her again.
I hear footsteps. I say, "I don't remember inviting you in," and I know Katara pauses in the hallway.
She's quiet for a minute while I struggle with Lin until she says, "Have you...have you tried lying her across your lap?"
"What?" I don't know what she's talking about. Lin's been at this all night, giving me a few breaks in between, and I'm about to crack. That or tear someone's head off.
"Lie her on her tummy, across your lap," Katara explains, as if it's common sense. And there it is. That maternal know-it-all tone I know so much and it just as easily pisses me off. She probably doesn't even know she sounds that way.
The competitive side of me wants to say yeah, yeah, of course I know. Don't have to tell me! I hate to admit it, I really do, but I didn't exactly bring Lin into this world with a head full of motherly knowledge and whatever the hell else. I don't want Katara to know that sometimes I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm a fine mom, dammit!
So I say, "I think I know how to take care of my kid, Katara," and my words are all barbed wire and spit. Lin's full out screaming bloody fucking murder now. Oh hell. All the shhh's in the world don't do shit, and whoever said making that noise instantly soothes babies because it makes them think of the womb was a total quack. If anything, it makes her scream louder.
Katara makes a noise in her throat, a little irritated grunt. "Oh, just do what I said!" she snaps. She's probably standing with her hands on her hips, just the way Sokka says she looks when she's annoyed. My face pinches. I don't want to be upstaged, to be reminded that I just received the title of mother a mere four weeks ago.
Grumbling obscenities about know-it-alls, I sit my stubborn ass in the rocking chair and do as she says. Lin screams louder when I lay her across my lap.
"What the hell kind of advice is this?!"
"Just pat her on the back-lightly!" Katara scolds. After some gentle pats and rubs, Lin burps, loud enough to make me giggle. I'm proud. I don't even care that it's a burp that's got me all wishy-washy.
Oh yeah. She's alll Toph.
"See?" Katara says, and I remember it's not just me and Lin. "She had gas. Bumi had a little colic the first few weeks, and I'd tried it all. Sometimes he just needed to burp and it helped to put a little pressure on his belly. Kya wasn't really as much of a fuss, and Tenzin's such a serious baby." There's a wistfulness to her voice as she remembers. Something sweet. Funny how she remembers so vividly, seeing as Bumi was a baby ten years ago.
I don't turn my face toward her, because I wonder if she's still angry at me for missing Tenzin's first birthday party. For not being there when he was born and running. I realize a little guiltily that his first birthday was last month.
It's not like I could have done anything about it anyway, I think to myself.
Katara isn't leaving. She's not saying anything either, and I wonder what she's thinking about me.
"Aang know you're here?" I ask suddenly, because a part of me can't believe that Aang isn't trailing behind her like the good little husband. Now there's a marriage to get your eyes rolling. They've always been sweet. The kind of sweet that rots your teeth. But Aang was gag-inducing every time she was pregnant. The thought makes me grin, and I thank the gods she's not.
I remember Twinkle Toes, turning into a worried, gooey mush over Katara so often it made me slap him upside the head. You alright, sweetie? Need something to drink? You okay, or was the baby just kicking? You should go home and put your feet up. Here, let me take that, it's too heavy! I've heard it all over the years, and he's always worse when she's pregnant. About drove me crazy that first go-around, and hell, that seems so long ago. Bumi's already ten, Kya's turning five in a few weeks, and now there's little Tenzin. I wonder if anything's changed since I've been gone.
"He doesn't know," Katara says simply, an impish quality to her voice, and she sounds like a little girl who just got away with sneaking out the back door without anyone noticing. "He has a peace meeting with Zuko at the Capital and will be gone all week. Got a babysitter for a few days and came here."
I whistle."He doesn't know, huh? Oooh, you dare devil. Can't believe Aang let your travel all by your lonesome," I tease. She snorts. There's a pause.
"Toph, we need you. We miss you. I miss you. Come home. How much longer are you going to hide away out here? The police force-"
I'm getting angry again. "The police force can do just fine without me."
"How much longer? You've been gone about a year!" Her voice rises, and I think she's moving, waving her arms or something, because her weight shifts. "I just-" she tries again, but doesn't say anything more. She's choking up. She's hurt, and it melts away my frustration. I guess I do miss her today. I miss them all.
"It's got nothing to do with you," I assure her. "I've got my reasons. And I have a kid now. She comes first. You want me to come back so bad, and you're all pissy I didn't tell you about the kid until the last minute, but you haven't exactly tripping over yourself to find a way to keep me up to date with anything else that's been going on with you since I've been away." It's supposed to get under her skin, because it's gotten under mine. I get it. She's busy. But for a while, I felt alone.
She ignores the jab and is silent for a moment. "I understand she comes first," she says quietly, but then her voice rises in indignation as she points out,"And it's not like I can write to you!"
I shake my head and hope I don't look as embarrassed as I feel.
"I don't understand why you won't come back. I really don't. I mean, I didn't even know you were pregnant until I got word. That letter you had that fishing woman write to me, and then she started writing about herself the other half of the letter and I still didn't know what was happening with you!" She's angry, but she starts laughing at the memory, and I can't help but grin.
"Crazy old Fu," I say with a chortle. "What'd she tell you?"
I hear Katara sniff. "Oh, things about how Bao her goatdog cheated her in Mah Jong, and she needed a few euons to win it all back, if I didn't mind. And she was going to give you a crib because surprise, surprise, you were going to have a baby. She said, 'good, now that Toph can stop scaring away all my customers and maybe I'll sell a few fish if Bao doesn't eat them first.' Then she asked me if I knew a cure for her bunions. Said it was my duty as the Avatar's wife, since the Avatar restores balance. Even in people's feet."
I laugh , long and loud. Katara laughs too. It feels good. I start nursing Lin to sleep. I don't bother asking if it's okay, not in front of the woman I know so well, who's seen and done it all before. She doesn't say anything.
Finally, I hear her sigh. "Toph, please come home. I don't like how you're out here by yourself." The easy smile I'm wearing falls.
"I'm doing fine out here. Got enough cash." It's true. My father died of fever a while back, and my mother went a couple years ago after a stroke. Me and Lin are all that's left. That and my parents' inheritance. Not that I'm doing anything with it but putting a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.
"That's not what I mean and you know it."
Do I need to drill it into this woman's thick skull?
"It's my own business, Katara." By now I'm tired of the conversation. Done with it.
"You just don't want to see the father of your baby," she guesses, hitting the nail on the head. I feel the blood drain from my face. Curse her womanly intuitions!
I laugh bitterly and point at my eyes. "Yeah, Katara, 'cause I'm really worried about seeing him."
"Toph," she warns. I scoff.
"So that's it then. Well, it can't be that bad. Doesn't he deserve to know he has a daughter?"
"Don't I deserve to be able to keep my shit to myself? Fuck."
Now I'm just annoying her. Katara is a freak of nature and almost never curses. I bet she's cringing right now.
"Toph, ugh! Why do you have to be so coarse," she begins to complain. I want to say, comes with being the chief of police, baby. Toughens you up; not that I need to be roughened up anymore. I'm pretty intimidating if I do say so myself. After working with the men for years and starting at a young age, the words shit, damn, and fuck just became a part of my already fabulous vocabulary.
Really, Katara's just pissed because I made her curse once, and Kya's first words were holy shit. She never got over it I guess.
"Why do you have to stick your nose in my business? I'm handling this fine."
Katara makes a little tutting noise. "Toph, you're thirty-two years old. Act like it. If you confront him, you confront him. You can't sit here and pretend he doesn't exist or doesn't need to know...who is he anyway? He doesn't know, so I'm guessing that means having a baby must have been pretty scandalous for him. Is he married or something?" she asks.
Frickin' Katara. Already figuring me out and spinning it into her own little soap opera before I can even explain. But it's not as easy as she thinks. Lin's father isn't here for a reason, and he chose that reason. I don't answer. Just sit there and pull a face. My heart's beating so loudly the sound's bouncing around in my skull.
I wish I could tell her. Someone. Anyone.
"Wow," Katara says softly. "He must have done a number on you for you to feel you have to hide away like this. I can't believe you haven't even told him or shown him what's what-" she starts on a tirade, but I cut her off.
"I didn't know I was going to keep her then," I blurt, and it feels like I've just given away a secret, a part of me that felt too heavy. I feel guilty as I say it, and hold Lin closer, breathing in her sweet milk smell.
Katara considers this. "I can imagine it must have been really hard," she says finally. "You were scared, I know. When I found out about Bumi, Aang and I hadn't even married yet, and even at twenty-three, I was scared-"
"That was different. You didn't plan it, but you had Aang. Don't try to compare our experiences Katara because they're not the same." My words lash out like a whip, and I regret that I sound so bitter.
There's a silence before Katara says, softly, "He really hurt you, didn't he?"
"Oh shut up about it already, Katara. It doesn't matter, it's not what you think. I'm not talking about this, and no, because no man can hurt Toph Beifong." What a lie. I want to laugh at myself the second I say it, but I only grumble. Katara regards me quietly until I begin to squirm.
"I'm leaving tomorrow at dawn. I'll come back. If you don't have a bag packed, I'll leave you alone, I promise. But, I'm only trying to be your friend. And that's why I want you to come home." She sounds so defeated, which rubs me the wrong way, because I'm supposed to be the victim here!
"Wow you must really need me back. What's the matter? Trouble in the city keeping Aang away from home a little longer than usual? Need me to go clean it up so he can make it back home in time for dinner? Is that it?" I'm being mean. I know. But I can't stop myself. Katara doesn't say anything for a while.
"I just miss you, Toph. And that's the truth. We all miss you."
I close my eyes against the ache in my chest. I can hear her feet shuffle, feel the subtle vibration in the floorboards when she takes a step.
"What's her name?" Katara asks before turning away.
"Lin," I croak. I chose it because it sounded strong. A name you couldn't push over.
"I like it," Katara says, and I imagine she's smiling. I swallow the lump lodged in my throat and listen to her leave.
I don't know how long I sit there after she's gone, rocking Lin, partly because I don't want to wake her now that she's sleeping again, and partly because I don't know what to do.
I've had this house since I was eighteen. First place I ever had. Bought it when I wanted a place to go, somewhere quiet. I found out I was pregnant here. I gave birth in this house. It's like my sanctuary. There's a lot of history on this little hill, too. It overlooks the Wulong Forest, near where Aang and Ozai fought to end the Hundred Year War. It's old, and I feel like it's seen so much, and maybe that's why I like it. It's such a cliché too. A little house on a hill, overlooking Xi Shulin, an Earth Kingdom village tucked away from the world in its own little nook.
I swallow hard and finally put Lin back in her crib. I grab a bag from my closet and start throwing crap in it. Anything, everything, until I've loaded enough clothes and underwear to suit me just fine. I switch to Lin's room, reaching into the closet. The first thing I come in contact with is a bundle of frilly clothes my only neighbor on the hill gave me. I hate the frilly lacy shit because it feels like it would itch like hell, but it works. I toss it in. Lin won't remember wearing it anyway.
When I'm done I feel tired, bone-tired, like I could sleep for years. I end up falling asleep on the rug next to Lin's crib, waiting for her to wake up screaming and demanding a boob. Miraculously, she sleeps through a lot more of the night than I'm used to lately, and that night, I dream of Sokka.
In the morning when I hear the knock at my door, I don't move for a second. My throat constricts. Shit. Maybe I really shouldn't do this. Another knock. I still don't get up. After a few seconds, I curse and get my ass up off the floor.
I open the door. I know she's still waiting, I know she wouldn't leave after only a few minutes. Katara would have a stake-out here before she admits defeat.
"Really?" She sounds so goddamn happy, but I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't glad (sort of) to finally be going home. Maybe I had missed it more than I knew.
"Yeah," I mumble. She comes inside, takes my bags while I grab Lin. I pause before closing and locking the door, inhaling deeply one last time. Cedar, dirt, wildflowers, my own musk. I'll miss it.
Then that's it, and I'm walking away from my little house on the hill not knowing when I'll ever see it again.
One of those new satomobiles the world's buzzing about is waiting for us, rumbling like a wild animal. It smells like gas and metal, sounds like something alive. I'm not sure if I like it. It reminds me too much of the Fire Nation's machines during the War. I get in anyway, and before I know it, we're getting out and boarding a zeppelin.
I take a deep breath, try to ignore the fact that I'm so nervous my stomach's tying itself in knots and I feel sick. Katara takes my arm, and it's all I need to take a step forward, holding Lin close to my chest.
I'm going home. Lin coos in my arms, and I smile. We're going home.