"Why did it have to be here?" Toph thought to herself. They could have gone anywhere else, somewhere far from this tavern, somewhere away from this storm, somewhere she could see…
Evening was pleasant enough in Ba Sing Se, calm night with only few clouds and small group of close friends were sitting in tavern for dinner and what seems to have been hours of pleasant reminiscence. How long has it been since peace finally came? Months? No, it has to be years but time flew so fast and everyone was so busy for the damage was yet seen and the long and deep feud between nations was ever so present… Kings agreed but people did not and even in peace people seem to have distrusted anyone from Fire Nation… and how could they not? But things slowly began turning for the better even at glacial speed but it was moving. Heroes of the war were recognized anywhere and everywhere and while it meant little to Aang, Sokka did not pass on the chance to show off. The evening was pleasant and with what little time they had before shops closed, Aang suggested they visit Jasmine Dragon much to Iroh's pleasure when he saw them coming. He enjoyed listening to their stories but more than that he would marvel at how much they all grew. Aang, little boy, towered above rest in height if not in total stature, never leaving his traditional robes though throughout years he had to buy new ones to accommodate his sudden outburst of growth. Newfound admiration for that came from Katara who looked more like woman than girl now and she enjoyed greatly looking up at Aang rather than looking down. Sokka on the other hand seem to have gained all… the war changed much of his appearance and he was almost as tall as Aang. His face became more mature, sharper and prominent lines, his tail was always present but most prominent feature of his was his muscular body which he dared not to hide in much expected admiration of girls and annoyance of one. Indeed they all changed but Iroh was perhaps more impressed at how much Toph has changed. The small tomboy he met years ago has suddenly became a young adult. Her eyes seem to have shifted from perpetually bored to genuinely pleasant to watch even if no one could catch her gaze. Round facial structure of little girl has shrunk and her face became more feminine if it was possible and under certain angle if she would stand up, one could see her slender figure… In her own way, unique way, she was beautiful. "How much they grew" he thought for himself as he laughed at the story of Aang and his adventures with Bumi down the Omashu delivery system and numerous crashes they had, swearing that their lives could have ended if there wasn't for the certain cabbage cart that happened to be there. What little time they could spare in the visit made Iroh a happy man but it didn't take much to notice that one among them was at turmoil. The one who was hardest to read was now like an open book to him and he worried.
"We should get going" said Aang after he placed the empty tea cup down "Looks like it's about to rain and we best get back to tavern before it catches us". As everyone stood up and said their goodbye to Iroh at the entrance he took Toph's arm, just above her wrist as to stop her to which she turned toward him.
"What is troubling you, child?" he said in his usual calm, pleasant tone
"Nothing" she exclaimed, remaining her calm self but her blind eyes wandered "I'll catch up with you!" she said loud toward the trio that waved again and headed down the street. Her head turned toward Iroh but her eyes looked down
"Mmmm… I know you can tell if someone lies, or, if someone is troubled" he continued, releasing her hand and slowly folded arms, tucking hands in long sleeves as his gaze was fixed upon her "but I don't need to listen to earth to know you are not in balance"
For long ten seconds she was completely silent… "how perceptive of old geezer" she thought, she both liked and hated him for just that, reading her so easily and all her earthbending could not help when her body surrendered under his words, revealing a blush on face that Iroh very much noticed under the light of lantern that was above the frame of the entrance door. He himself now revealed a small smile, sincere but sad as he could only guess what could trouble her.
"Are your parents making you return?" he asked but she sighed and simply dismissed that it was nothing like of that sort and even if it was, she wouldn't even consider to think on returning now. Iroh moved his lips in deep pondering of what could it be but as he looked better at Toph's sad eyes he asked again.
"Is it Aang?" his voice was quiet but inquisitorial. Could she harbor feelings for him as Katara? The answer came just as quiet but firm "No" and small relief came to Iroh for he dared not to even consider how tough it would be on them
"Is it Sokka?" he continued now in same tone and he got his answer, soundless one. Toph's left hand grasped her right arm, just above elbow as she quickly looked away. It is Sokka alright but what could it be?
"Is it something he did or said?" question followed but she shook her head quickly, making her bangs shake along "Is it something he didn't do?" He now asked, tilting head just a tad bit with eyebrow lifting and the answer came in form of Toph biting her lower lip and nodding slightly. It was all clear to Iroh, they are both as adults as they can be, forced to grow up in difficult times for everyone, but they are still so young and it was time for most difficult of all feelings to burn in them, but for now mostly in her. He could only assume what she was thinking but he was sure of what she is feeling.
"Oh child" he exclaimed with a sigh "seems that even prodigy of eartbending can be pierced by the bitter thorn of love"
"It is not like that!" she quickly protested, for the moment fearing they would hear her but rest were too far to hear her shout "And how can thorn be bitter?!"
"But it can" he chuckled "it is not a bitterness you feel on your tongue, but bitterness you can feel deep down. It is, a very different kind of bitterness"
"It's just that he's…" she started, choking on last word and she repeated "he's…"
"He is Sokka" Iroh said, undisturbed by her shouting and adamant in his calm demeanor "Stubborn and proud to notice what is right beneath his nose" she nodded to his words.
"It's not as if I care" she displayed more of her stubbornness in front of Iroh seemingly forgetting that just moments ago he all but read her completely but he knew better and she could notice that if she could but to look at his calm expression.
"But you do, child" he smiled
"And what do you know about it, geezer?!" her voice raised and his right hand moved out of the sleeve and gently gripped her shoulder, making her lift her head to face him
"I had a son, remember?" sadness filled his voice "I am familiar with the concept of love and loss" the urge for him to comfort her has risen high but he kept composed "Have you told him how you feel?"
"Not like he would understand, not like he would care" she said having eyes trembling in attempt to hold tears.
"Only by telling will you know" he said in his well known sage voice "Else you might regret later not knowing if same thorn stings him. But I have a feeling that things will turn out in ways you do not expect, and, perhaps in ways that you never thought you wished them to be"
"You talk too much" she simply smiled, barely visible on her face. His words, cryptic and mysterious have calmed her, gave her some sort of comfort and instead of further words she simply decided to hug him, an act that he eagerly returned before she ran off in direction of tavern. Iroh looked up toward skies, distant thunder was heard as he rubbed his shoulder, old bones never lie. "Seems like storm is about to come".
Tavern where they rented rooms was rather large, easily accommodating dozens of visitors that were in need of much desired rest from travel. Hallway on second floor having rooms on both side and long green carpet rolled down along the path. Two rooms at the very end of this hallway were reserved, one for Katara and Toph, one for Aang and Sokka and in one of them was Toph, sitting on her bed, leaning against the post with legs bent up and knees pressed against chest. The storm came and blind Toph was terrified of it. For her the world shrunk so much even hand on wall could not see further than yard or two and it was not due to stone itself but her own fear. She never saw lightning coming, she never in her life had time to prepare for the storms and every loud crack of it felt as if her own world is breaking apart. There was no comfort when she was little and there is no comfort now. Hands clasped her ears hard, trying to muffle the shattering sound but the storm was too close… fort that is Ba Sing Se could not protect her from it. Her lips trembled, heartbeat fast and breath catching up in every breath she took and even more when it left. Toph, perhaps one of strongest earthbender alive, save for Bumi, the prodigy taught by Badgermoles themselves, Toph who blind saw more than seeing eyes ever could, Tohp the hero who partake in ending of hundred years war, Toph the Blind Bandit… was now shaking in her bed like little girl again. Katara was not here, she left room some time ago just before the storm and Toph did not had time to ask where she was going. She was all alone in the room, she was all alone in her own world.
Fear overcame her and after one more crack of lightning she rushed toward the door, opening them and exiting her room. She needed someone, anyone to just be beside her. Perhaps Katara is with Aang and Sokka. She wanted to avoid Sokka but the fear that pushed her out of room clouded her senses and not only did she forgot why she was uncomfortable around him, she also could no longer see hallway. With hands she felt the wall only to keep her orientation and slowly made way toward the door, knocking on them. She was almost sure it was Aang's room but could not be certain, maybe Sokka is asleep as he usually is as soon as night falls and won't hear the knock. Nothing happened though and she waited more before knocked again louder until she heard footsteps approaching and opening door and relief came to her but perhaps not in way she expected.
"Toph?" voice came to her, yawning and mostly silent "What's wrong?" she froze suddenly in place in front of person… barefooted, with hair loose down and in light green nightgown. Her eyes widened as thoughts rushed through her head "Why him? Why did he had to wake up? Why did he had to see me like this?" But Sokka's voice was heard again and raised question
"Is everything alright?"
"Y…yes…" she replied trying to compose herself "Is Katara here?" He looked around in her room, noticing that she wasn't but then again, Aang wasn't there either "No, doesn't look like it, they probably went somewhere, Aang is not here so… wild guess they are downstairs. No way they'll be out on this rain" he yawned again, scratching his chest over shirt "Why? Are you afraid of the storm?"
"Of course not! You think I am that easily scar-…" Toph started but before she could finish her sentence another crack of lightning was heard strong and close and only thing she did was scream and rushed forward, holding tight onto Sokka who was surprised by her action. He would have teased her more about this like she did tease him on so many chances in the past but as he looked down he was not looking at small girl who would promise thousand deaths if he doesn't take her out of the water… this was Toph he never seen up close. She was shivering heavily, sobbing and burying her face face deep into Sokka's chest and instead of any teasing words he simply wrapped arm around her shoulder, holding her close as if her life would depend on it.
He closed the door, walking slowly with her toward the bed and sat on edge of it. Minutes passed but it seemed more like hours as he looked down at her, speechless and with every shine of lightning she would flinch and he would see her cheeks shining from tears. Sokka's mouth opened to say something but just as quickly they would close, puffing up with air stuck there in his utter failure to think of anything appropriate to say. He could be his goofy self but she would probably just shut him up and he most definitely can't ask her to go to bed and for reason known only to himself, he didn't want to either. However Sokka's well known side was stronger and he broke the silence.
"So, have you always been afraid of storms?" Sokka asked and she simply nodded. Sure he didn't like thunderstorms but far from the fact he couldn't sleep because of it. Just give him pillow and blanket and he could sleep through clash of continents. This fear must have been deeply rooted inside of her, he thought.
"You don't know what's it like…" she whispered, still sobbing, every sentence of hers was met with breath catching in her throat and her hands did not let go of his shirt "You can see it before it comes… your guts clench, your heart slows expecting it, Sokka… You know it will come but I can't see it!" she cried out, loud! "I can't see that light and I don't know when will it come and when it hits the ground it is all I can see… it comes from everywhere and surrounds me from every side…"
"Yeah… I can understand that…" he replied silently. Perhaps he didn't know what exactly she felt but he knew well what's it like to feel completely surrounded. He kept hugging her in silence but it didn't take long for him to notice Toph again, better this time. Long light green gown, loose hair and soft fragrance that came from her hair all made his own cheeks gain the soft tone of pink as he realized that beyond the scared girl, Toph has indeed grew up. She was not perhaps as beautiful as Suki but there was something that simply charmed him into having his own mind twist and bend from various memories. Was it wrong of him to do so? Perhaps it was, but this scene, this particular moment the world was the room, and center was this young woman in his arms. Toph had worse luck than him though, as her safety increased in arms of muscular water tribe warrior her world also expanded and she could see again… Room, two rooms, four, entire hallway and then tavern, she could feel again everyone's movements and even saw Aang and Katara downstairs in group of people. What is worse is the fact that she could now hear another sound, one she didn't notice right up until this point but this was familiar sound, rhythmic, stable but fast, going on and on. Her ears rang and her head filled with it, and not even the sound of the world shattering lightning could outmatch it because she simply chose to listen to it… What would she give to be able to listen to it often, what would she give to listen to it like this… what wouldn't she give to always listen to Sokka's heart… And she wanted it so badly now, more than ever.
"Remember last year?" Sokka broke the silence in an attempt to cheer her up if possible "On the beach, when we pulled you into water and you made that pillar that you sat on" instead of answer she just nodded, the image of it was burned into her mind "You were too scared to enter the water and then you were too scared to return to the shore" another nod came to her, faint smile formed on corners of her mouth as she spoke "And Aang got frozen into solid cube because he pushed Katara in before she could remove her dress"
"Oh yeah…" Sokka chuckled "she only allowed his head free and left him to melt" she nodded again at his words but her focus easily swayed back to the calming sound of heartbeat "You threatened to kill me if I let you drown" he continued with soft smile looking up at stone ceiling, wondering if it would be possible "And I carried you back to the shore saying that as-…" before he could finish he got interrupted, Toph continued his train of words "As long as I'm around I won't let you drown" she finished. She remembers that well and how could she forget? Sokka took her in his arms, holding close as she gripper his neck tight, feeling like princess being saved from the tower. It was then when she realized fully that Sokka was not just her crush. For long she wanted to say it and perhaps now it's the good time… no it was worst possible time but tomorrow might be too late, everyone will be around and they will be too busy. She gulped hard, her breathing suddenly became fast and deep as she bit her lip hard again… feet became cold as hands clenched his shirt gathering every bit of courage… Now is the time Toph, she thought to herself, tomorrow will be too late, tomorrow you will push him again… do it now.
"Toph…" Sokka said, interrupting her moment of courage, his voice was silent and his heart suddenly picked up the speed, matching her "I gotta tell you something before you say anything…" he continued, her eyes widened in sheer sense of fear. Thoughts rushed in her head, wild one after another… He's probably going back to village or maybe he'll just say he thinks of her as a friend… but she didn't say anything yet, maybe he knows, no… he knows, she has been close to him for long time now. She'll be rejected right there on spot before even getting the chance.
"The thing is, you know how last year I tried to ask you out and you rejected me?" His words pierced her ears like sharp knives, stomach clenched and twisted… no he is not leaving he probably got together with someone "And one more time before when we were at Zuko's coronation…" was he asking her out? She didn't notice but at that time all she did do to him was teasing and punching and occasional hole in ground for him to stay in entire afternoon "and couple more times before that…" she trembled lightly as he talked… "I never even got the chance to say anything and I know it's bad time… it's worst of times I know I know but since you are quiet I'll just say it… pffff ok, ok… here it goes" his voice continued, trembling bit in fear or expectation but Toph could not care less anymore, she was on the verge of breaking down into tears again. "Just say it already and end my misery" she thought to herself.
"The thing is… Toph, I like you, I like you a lot… I'm not going to say that… you know… other word because I don't want to, pressure you or… anything but… I like you"
Darkness took her again, every second after it became as long as the age of a star, her head moved away from his chest and toes bent, clenching close and slowly her field of vision began shrinking. Aang, Katara, groups of people downstairs, the tapping of foots on hallway and then entire room disappeared from her eyes… she was blind again and not even Sokka's closeness was enough. His face completely vanished from her unseeing eyes and even memory of it became empty. Could she be dreaming? Could she still be on her bed hugging her knees in sleep among the sea of lightning strikes above Ba Sing Se? Sokka looked down at her as she turned to face him… He was sure that this is no longer Toph he knew so long ago, the puffed cheeks, the wide smile and ever teasing but cheerful eyes have changed… her cheeks changed, becoming more slender, bright red but in truth tears had nothing to do with it anymore. Eyes slightly glistening and as another lightning cracked and light filled the room he saw them well… pair of eyes, as silver as the moon that shines upon Spirit Oasis and lips only slightly parted, smooth and pink… he was completely drunk from this sight and soon he was just as blind as she was, losing the connection with rest of the world as he watched her in silence. If only she could die and dream this dream forever but this was not a dream as Toph thought and finally she broke the heavy almost murdering silence.
"Don't joke with me Snoozles…" she barely managed to say as she shifted on bed, facing him completely with her body and head "don't joke with me now…"
"I am not…" he said calmly but she apparently heard but didn't listen
"If you tell me this is one of your jokes I swear I'll bury you under Ba Sing Se" she continued and indeed she would have for this was all she could wish to happen right now.
"I am not!" he repeated, loud, ending any doubt she might have but there was not time to either cry or laugh for even with her foot firmly lodged against the floor she could not see him or what he would do… there was no reply from her, both were left in complete and utter silence and all that could be seen from the light of the nearby lightning were two people on bed, lips pressed one against another and not even Toph could say that in room there were two hearts, for they both now were beating as if there was but one.