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25th July, 2014
There were only a few ways for the Chief of Police to de-stress, and most of those involved heavy alcohol consumption. However, with a young child and a two-month-old baby, she had to be fairly particular in the ways she cast off her work and just settle down. For those who knew her, though, there was one specific way that Toph, Chief of Police, could relax and maintain complete control over what little vestiges of sanity she had left.
Katara sighed in frustration as the petite earthbender proceeded to shake the very foundations of the (newly constructed) Air Temple Island, causing baby Bumi to shriek in delight as Kya ran up to her aunt.
"Camping trip, camping trip!" she echoed, causing Toph to let out a hearty chuckle.
"Toph, it's a really bad time. Aang's been busy all week, and Bumi's teething-"
"Pssh," the blind earthbender brushed her off. "This is just what you need, then. A weekend away. Come on, I need this, too. I need to feel some real dirt between my toes, not this fake-concrete crap. Lin is driving me up the walls..."
Katara levelled a glare at her that she didn't see. "Don't swear in front of Kya, she's already picking up on Aang's bad habits. I don't need a mini-Toph, too," she grumbled, but Toph could still sense the light-heartedness simmering just below the surface.
"Come on, Sugar Queen, it'll be fun. I need to get away from the force, and I bet Suyin would love to meet her favourite aunty," Toph sing-songed. When Katara didn't immediately offer an argument, Toph thrust her hands into the air. "Yes! Awesome, I'll be over later with the girls. You better be ready!" With a grin and a chuckle, she turned towards the door. Before she could make it outside, Katara's voice stopped her.
"Is Sokka coming?"
Katara hadn't been watching her friend when she asked the question, but when an answer didn't come straight away, she looked up. It felt like a shadow had passed over the younger girl, so thick even the children had gone quiet.
"If he wants." The dark air was gone almost straight away, and Toph was glancing back at Katara, the laughing twinkle in her eye and dimples, as prominent as ever, in her grin.
It was several hours later that Toph returned, baby Suyin in one arm and Lin's hand in the other. She had ditched her metal cocoon for civilian clothing, and an Acolyte was jogging several yards away, laden down with two duffel bags.
Katara watched from a the kitchen window, up to her elbows in soapy water, as her friend bent down, jostling the baby a little so she could say something to Lin. The little girl released Toph's hands and placed a clumsy kiss on her mother's lips before running into the house, beaming. Her cries of "Ten-Ten!" echoed through the large rooms until the airbender answered. Katara lost track of them after that as she looked back to Toph, who was putting her free hand to use by slinging one bag over her shoulder and grabbing the other one. Waterbending her hands dry, she approached her old friend just as Toph hit the front steps.
"Oh, Spirits, she's tiny, isn't she?" were the first words out of her mouth, and she grinned a little. Toph snorted, handing over her daughter with a gentleness she didn't usually show.
"Thank Hei Bai. After Lin, I thought I'd never tighten up again. At least Su had the decency not to rip me apart."
At that moment, Suyin let out a little giggle, as though she knew what her mother was talking about. Katara made a cooing noise, completely ignoring her friends words as she looked at the little girl before stepping through the doorway.
"Aang's just getting Appa sorted," she explained. "Sokka's out helping him. He was... very excited with your idea..."
Hearing the weariness in Katara's voice set little sparks of guilt rocketing through Toph. Spirits, the woman sounded exhausted. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked, feeling the waterbender sag somewhat in relief at the question.
"Could you just round up all the kids? The kids have packed all their stuff, so we just need to get them onto Appa."
Toph stood up and, with a mock salute, began to locate the four children. Su would be fine with Katara, and the sooner they could leave, the better.
It didn't take her long to round up Lin and Tenzin; they were out in the yard, playing under a moon-peach tree. Lin was making mud pies while Tenzin was using his airbending to fling them at unsuspecting Acolytes. Toph was almost tempted to leave them, but then Xing Ying received a mouthful of dirt, and Toph did not want to cross that woman on a good day. She was far too cheerful and... acolyte-y for the earthbender's taste, and so she ushered the two children towards the sky bison pens.
The children grabbed one hand each and tugged her along, Lin talking incessantly about whatever happened to catch her eye, while Tenzin nodded along complacently. Toph felt them nearing Aang and Sokka before they noticed the adults, but as soon as they did they let go of her hands and ran ahead to play with the baby bison calves. Toph could smell the sweat a few yards away, the hot midday sun beating down on them.
"Hey, boys!" she called out, a wide grin stretched across her features. She felt Sokka's heart increase as she neared him, but it wasn't for the same reason that Aang's picked up. The airbender strode forward, grinning madly as he picked up his old friend at twirled her around (stopping only after she threatened to prevent him from ever having any more kids). He put her down with much more care than when he picked her up, and instead pulled her into a tight hug, kissing her temple.
"Toph! You look- wow, you look really good," he said jovially, pulling away to take a good look up and down his friend.
"You better not let Katara hear you say that," she said, and he let out a small chuckle. "You packed up fast," she commented, and Aang gave a sheepish grin.
"Yeah... don't tell Katara, but I've been prepared to get out of the city for a while," he grinned, glancing down as Tenzin moved close to his father, tugging on the long robes and whispering in his ear. Aang stood up and picked up the children, catapulting himself into the air to glide onto Appa's back. With the airbender distracted, Sokka moved closer to the blind earthbender.
"Toph..." he breathed, pulling her into a warm hug. "You really do look great," he said. Toph smiled at him, but it didn't quite reach her eyes.
"Thanks, Snoozles," she murmured, pulling away and punching him lightly in the upper arm.
"How are you? Doing well?"
"I'm fine, thank you. Lin's excited to start school."
Toph didn't want it to be awkward, but she couldn't help it. There was a curdling in her gut that she didn't like, and every instinct told her to get away while she still could. As thick as he was, even Sokka could feel the tension emanating from her.
"Hey, what's wrong?" He took a step closer, grin falling as she shirked away. They were both thinking of the same thing—the same night—and all Sokka wanted to do was pull her into a tight hug and ask the question. As soon as he had the thought, the moment passed, and Toph was looking away.
"I better go catch the other demons," she said, turning back to the main house. She tried to focus on finding the other children (which wasn't that difficult—they had come to coo at the baby), but that only served as a temporary distraction.
Even when they finally made it aboard Appa, with four restless children moving around and chattering endlessly, it still didn't distract Toph from the man sitting on the other end of the saddle. They had promised each other that nothing bad would happen, but that had been a lie. Sighing, she closed her eyes, hugging Suyin close and trying desperately to ignore the man in front of her. Lin noticed her mother's behaviour and crawled next to the earthbender, her snuggling almost burrowing. Toph let a small smile slip out. At least she had her girls. That was all she ever needed.
Sokka, on the other hand, had absolutely nothing to distract him. Bumi didn't want to play 'I spy' (and Kya had never liked that game anyway), and he wasn't surrounded by loved ones (well... he knew that was debatable). He didn't often wish for Suki's presence—after all, they were perfectly capable of existing without the other, even if it was hard sometimes—but at that moment, all he wanted was for his wife to be by his side. They were missing so much, and sometimes it didn't even feel like he was married at all. Between his work as Ambassador, and hers as Zuko's Royal Guard, it was getting more and more difficult to spend quality time with each other. At a sudden thought, he let a small smile appear on his face. He hadn't told anyone, but he had been offered a permanent gig on the Council. There was only one reason he hadn't said 'yes' straight away, and she was sitting not five feet away.
Setting up camp near Wulong Forest brought back numerous memories for everyone. Sokka lamented over his lost Space Sword for a while (very dramatically; he had Bumi giggling for about ten minutes straight) before, grumbling, he followed Katara's orders to set up the tents. The waterbender had already begun dinner, and Toph had taken it upon herself to find firewood. That left Aang with the kids, but it was a silently-agreed upon rule that he always looked after the kids whenever everyone else was busy. It was even better because he enjoyed it.
He also enjoyed retelling the story of 'How I Defeated Ozai and Saved the World', and the children were more than happy to sit still as he augmented his tale with little puffs of fire, earthbending legions of soldiers that were promptly turned to dust as the Fire Lord was overthrown. The children's cries and cheers echoed around the vast forest, bringing soft smiles to the faces of all the adults present. Even Suyin, attached securely to Toph's back with her metal cables, seemed to look on the world with mild interest, eyes bright.
The sun was setting by the time camp was set up. The tale over, Sokka had given Bumi a wooden boomerang, and the two had wandered off in search of a nice open space where no one would get hurt to use the last bit of sunlight. Toph was too busy imitating her daughters, rolling around in the dirt, to be of much use to anyone, and she would have completely ignored them if they tried.
That just left Aang and Katara, who were more than happy to enlist the help of Tenzin and Kya to help cook dinner. Kya used her waterbending to keep a pot of water stirring as Aang showed Tenzin how to properly cut up cabbages—"It's an airbender thing," he said, probably only to convince Tenzin to help in the first place. The young airbender was surprisingly complacent in the first place, though.
"It's a shame Suki isn't here," Katara said conversationally after the food had been distributed and Sokka and Bumi had returned.. She had prepared a cabbage stew for everyone, with potato-corn and broccoflower as a side for the vegetarians. Sokka had remembered to pack some jerky and salted pork for himself and the Beifongs, who had taken to the meat with gusto. "Is she still on Firelord duty?"
Sokka nodded, slurping a spoon full of stew. "Yeah, just while he's having that national conference. Extra security detail. I think she's coming home next month." He gave a clumsy grin and ended up missing his mouth with his food, causing Toph to laugh at his annoyed groan.
"Geez Sokka, "Toph laughed, ripping a piece of jerky apart and handing it to Lin. "I think Suki needs to to teach you how to eat properly. Or she could just feed you herself, like Katara's doing with Tenzin."
Sokka poked his tongue out at Toph, but was distracted as Katara, who was cutting up a piece of potato for Tenzin, asked, "Is she staying this time? Or are they just going to keep rotating her around. You know it isn't fair on anyone."
Sokka heaved a sigh. "I don't know. I hope so—I think she's going to put in for leave for a while. Ty Lee is just as good as she is, and she doesn't have me waiting for her on the outside." He puffed out his chest, ignoring his sister and Toph, who had begun to guffaw at his words as soon as they left his mouth.
The conversation strayed to the Air Acolytes who had, much to Katara's dismay, taken a fancy to Aang. She had to keep moving them just so they would actually do their work and leave her husband alone.
"Xing Ying is very good at keeping them focussed," she explained, continuing, much to Aang's mortification, with "And of course, there are only a few who are allowed near our quarters. They take after Ty Lee, if you catch my meaning."
Aang would probably never forget the twin looks of pure evil that appeared on his friend's faces at that moment. Toph's fell as Katara, who obviously hadn't had a good gossip in a while, turned to her.
"So, Toph." Katara looked back down at Tenzin's plate, her eyes never leaving it. Her right eyebrow was raised slightly, questioning. "How'd that date go with Yun? I knew he'd be perfect for you." Toph rolled her eyes and scrunched her nose up. "Toph?"
"I didn't go. I cancelled," she said. Katara let out a disappointed groan.
"Toph, you've gotta get back out there," she said, turning her gaze fully on her blind friend. "You need to relax—you know, with a guy. You're always working-"
"-and so I don't have time for dating nonsense," Toph finished. "And please, 'relaxing with a guy' is what landed me with two kids. I'm not so eager for a third." Katara shook her head. Aang and Sokka had stopped what they were doing to listen in (the latter trying desperately not to seem as though he was eavesdropping in the first place), but neither were game to speak up for any of the women.
"You're always working," Katara began again, "and the girls need a father-figure, at least. You're not there all the time, Toph, and I know that's not your fault," the waterbender was quick to add. "But don't you get lonely?"
Toph was silent for a few moments as her friends watched her. Suddenly, she snorted and began laughing.
"Seriously? Please, Sugar Queen. Half of Republic City wants to get into my bed. I'm not lonely. I even have a new kid to prove it," she insisted. Katara scrunched up her face in a frown, but thankfully left the issue alone. Aang went back to helping Kya with her chopsticks; only Sokka continued to watch Toph as she and Lin grabbed pieces of meat from a shared plate, baby Suyin gurgling happily on her mother's lap. He'd have to teach the little earthbender how to eat properly at some stage. Maybe get her a boomerang, or something. And hey, if the kids needs a father-figure... well, why not him?
There was a little thought at the back of his head, pushed aside but not completely ignored, that wondered that perhaps asking Toph about it was not a good idea.
He was roused from his thoughts as he noticed Suyin looking at him. Suddenly, she broke into a massive grin, and giggling, thrust her hands out to him.
"Sokka, she seems to like you!" Katara cooed, earning a forced chuckle from her brother. Sokka slowly lifted his hands up, leaning forward as though to pick her up, when Toph shied away. She coughed once, before explaining,
"I need to feed her first. Otherwise she'll pull out all of Sokka's dashing hair," she said with a laugh, joined in by Katara and Aang only a few seconds later. Sokka had to give it to her; Toph was a lot better at acting than he was.
"Well, the kids need a bath, right, Aang?" Katara turned to her husband. "There's a small stream not far from here. Come on, Sokka, you can help, too."
"Actually, Katara, I was wondering if he could help me? It's just, I like to have Lin here and she can be a bit... difficult sometimes."
Katara shrugged, standing up and ushering her children towards the stream.
Neither Sokka nor Toph moved for the longest time. Lin, oblivious to the tension, was still picking at the food on her plate. Suyin, denied the presence of someone she was after, screwed up her face. The wailing jerked the adults back, and Sokka moved forward to help almost instinctively.
"I'm fine!" Toph snapped, which only aggravated the baby further.
"Toph," Sokka sighed. "Let me help."
"Why?" she argued. "You let me handle Lin when she was like this. I can handle Su as well."
"Because! Because I want to help. I want to be there, for you and Lin and Su..."
Toph's eyes flashed up in a warning. "Sokka, don't," she said, glaring daggers. Lin was still—thankfully—preoccupied with getting her teeth through the tough jerky, and wasn't paying attention to anything the adults were talking about.
"Toph, don't cut me out," he mumbled, barely heard above Suyin's screaming. Toph ignored him, pulling her shirt up to feed the crying child. Sokka averted his eyes, but she didn't seem to notice or care about his awkwardness.
The sudden silence was more deafening than anything a child could conjure, and suddenly, neither adult knew what to say. Toph was the one to wait and listen, though, while Sokka would always speak before thinking; even as adults, these traits persisted, and the silence was broken by a simple question.
"She's mine, isn't she?" he asked quietly. Toph let out a sigh, a grimace contorting her features as Suyin gave a particularly hard suckle.
"...Yes." Toph wanted to lie; she wanted to disagree and make up some unnamed father, but Sokka deserved more than that. He couldn't lie to her, so how could she lie to him?
The silence reigned once again. Sokka had asked the question, but now he new the answer, he wasn't sure. He had a duty now, as a father, even if he was married. Toph hadn't wanted another kid—hell, Lin had been an accident (but not a mistake. Oh, never a mistake). There weren't supposed to be repercussions. That night was supposed to end then and there, one fire-whiskey induced sexual stupor, but it hadn't.
"Toph, I wan-"
"No, Sokka," she cut him off. "Don't. Don't try and help me or offer to be her father or anything. She might be yours, but she's not yours, okay?" Toph must have felt it in his heartbeat, the way her words stung, cut him to the bone, because she immediately relented. "Sokka... I don't need anything more. We don't need anything more. You just have to be Uncle Sokka. The male figure that Su," she indicated the child attached to her breast, "and Lin," the little girl poked her head up at the mention of her name, wide-eyed and bouncing curls, "need."
"But... she's my daughter..." he whispered, knowing that even without vision, Toph could see the tears that had formed in his eyes. How could she- how could she say such a thing? There was a lump rising rapidly in his throat, and it was all he could do not to choke on it. Through the water, he watched as the sad smile on Toph's face dropped.
"No, she isn't, Sokka," Top said softly. "She's my daughter, not yours. And when Suki gets back, you're going to tell her you love her and you miss her, and you're going to have a beautiful child with your wife. And you're going to be part of Su's life, but only—only—as Uncle Sokka. Understand?"
Mutely, he nodded his head, rapidly blinking away the water. "What- what if I can't?" he dared to ask, and for a moment, he thought he saw a crack in her façade.
"We have to, Sokka. And maybe we'll do better in our next life. All we can do now is be the best we can."
All they could do now was forget it ever happened, and maybe the spirits would give them peace. Looking into Toph's glassy eyes, and remembering the last time he held Suki in his arms, Sokka couldn't even kid himself that he deserved such peace.
There was a thick silence, broken only by Lin's chewing and Suyin's suckling. Sokka found that, if he tried, he could look at Toph. He wondered whether he would ever be able to see her as his best friend again, or if that small relief in his hectic life had been tainted forever.
"We would have been good, though, wouldn't we?" he asked quietly after a moment, voice running like water. Toph turned her head towards Su, and Sokka followed her gaze. Quietly—oh, so quietly—she whispered, unable even at that volume to stop her voice from cracking,
"We would have been brilliant."
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