It was a tranquil night. Katara didn't like it.
The quiet nights were the truly unsettling ones. Katara could never fully relax in the deathly quiet. The silence bred memories: bad memories and good memories.
"We kissed at the invasion. And I thought we were gonna be together. But we're not."
"Aang...I don't know."
"Why don't you know?"
"Because we're in the middle of a war, and...we have other things to worry about. This isn't the right time."
"Well, when is the right time?"
"Aang, I'm sorry, but right now, I'm just a little confused."
She could remember his words, still clear as day from long ago. But the unexpected taste of his lips against hers was lost, now an event numbed by time rather than a memorized sensation.
Their meanings unclear, the memories were so tangled up or mixed around at this point. Good? Bad? Katara couldn't decide which kind of memory was worse anymore.
All of the memories were unpleasant now.
The good memories were reminders of what she had once had, and what had been lost, and could never be retrieved.
They whispered, 'If only...'
The bad memories were reminders of regrets, missed opportunities, wrong choices that could not be made right.
They seethed, 'If only...'
Katara hated the quiet. And it was serving to be a frustratingly quiet night, indeed.
It was the snoring that stirred Katara from the memories. Sweet, precious sound; meek proof of the one thing Katara still had. The one thing she had left to protect - at least, the one thing she was able to protect, anymore.
Toph's breath was shallow against Katara's palms, the dust and sweat of the earthbender's shirt was grimy against Katara's fingers, but Katara was learning to appreciate the 'healthy coating of earth.' Her arms wormed around Toph's waist, Katara could feel her partner's stomach gurgle a bit. It had been doing that periodically ever since they'd gone to bed. It was aggravating and wrenching, because Toph had kept claiming she was doing fine, but Katara wasn't a fool. The girl was hungry - they both were.
With so much of the Earth Kingdom no longer being tended, the entire nation was still struggling to recover from its state of famine. The 'Phoenix King' was no-doubt cushy and comfortable along with his inner ring of kiss-ups in Ba Sing Se, hiding in their shroud of lies and ignorance. Rather than trying to invade Omashu and snatch it back from the White Lotus, Ozai's plan seemed to be to simply cut them off from what was left of the kingdom around them. Starve them out.
After the bulk of the chaos had died down in the aftermath of the Sozin's Comet, Toph and Katara had found each other in Omashu. They had spent a year or so hiding out in Iroh and Bumi's bastion of hope, trying to help the White Lotus arrange some kind of resistance…And by the time they had left, Katara could conclude that Ozai's plan to starve the city out was working. Zuko's alleged assassination had practically sapped away his uncle's once vigorous spirit, and King Bumi's age was starting to catch up with him given the state of things.
Feeling Toph's gurgling stomach, hearing the tiny sound of hunger...It reminded Katara of the faces of desperate refugees trying to find solace in Omashu. People she had no means of helping. She could barely keep two teenage stomachs fed, much less the war-torn populace.
Toph was mumbling in her sleep. Laying on her side, the girl's snores were dry and subtle, her mouth agape as it tried to make up for the air that wasn't passing into her plugged up nostrils.
Katara allowed herself to stop dwelling on the worries and the doubts of the world outside of their tiny stone tent built for two. She was cold, she was tired, she was hungry. She needed rest for the day ahead, especially if they were going to find any food. Katara gently adjusted her grip around Toph's stomach, nudging her body flush against Toph's back for warmth. She tightened their ragged blanket beneath her shoulder and hip. Being taller than her companion, she snuggled her chin into the nest of bristly, unwashed hair on Toph's head.
Katara took in a deep breath, inhaling the oddly comforting stench of Toph's sweat. She sighed out with discouraged exhaustion, and closed her eyes, letting her ears linger on the sounds of their rhythmic, shallow breaths slowly syncing.
The quiet finally faded away in the fog of slumber.
It was replaced with the vibrant, hazy noise of a dream. A dream filled with smiles and voices that Katara's brain could barely reconstruct.
The vibrations. Terrifying vibrations.
He can't say her name. Sputtering. Coughing.
Suki's shrieks. Wailing, crying...
Sokka's heartbeat. Erratic. Unnatural vibrations.
His heartbeat ripples through the metal. The metal ripples through him.
He is one with the metal. So much metal. Mangled, twisted...everything is twisted.
He smells like metal. Liquid metal dripping down.
So much fire. Heat. Dizzying heat. Everything is dizzying.
Suki's screams. She is yelling. Commanding that Toph do something.
Infernos, blazing. Engines above, roaring. Suki, crying.
His whimpers, moans, coughs...Fading.
Toph can't move. Everything is heavy, hot, dizzying.
His heartbeat is fading.
So much noise. Everywhere, noise.
But everything is quiet.
Toph's body tightened at Katara's tired voice, the single word stirring her from her reflective dream state. She was suddenly awake now, her palm picking up the soft vibrations of Katara's shuffling, of Katara's heartbeat. Katara used the stars and maps to navigate, while Toph had found a different kind of compass to follow in spite of everything: a steady heartbeat. Natural, calming, consistent.
Thum. Thump...Thum. Thump...Thum. Thump...
Thank the Spirits for Katara's presence. The quiet had been paralyzing the night prior as Toph's illness-addled brain had filled in the cracks with undesired thoughts. Her memory still carried a fleeting sensation of the shapes - the ones that had previously radiated heartbeats, but no longer did.
"Hun," Katara whispered, prodding Toph's back - those nimble fingers, poking Toph's body from its slumber. As Toph roused her consciousness, she could make out her bedmate yawning, only for the sound to devolve into a shiver. Toph pulled her body up from the chilled dirt, and in so doing, realized that her movements were restricted by a blanket. Bleh. She hated blankets. Katara must have gotten cold in the night and slipped it over them.
Toph's lungs kicked out a few phlegm-filled coughs, each one stinging. She pounded her sore chest with her palm and swallowed - she could hear her bedmate quietly whimper with concern. With an achy moan, Toph finagled the blanket off of her abdomen and clawed her un-trimmed nails across an itch on her scalp. Grains of sand, dirt, and dandruff were loosened from her hair.
Damn. What time was it? It was freaking cold...Maybe Katara had the right idea with the blanket, after all.
But her forehead was oily with sweat. Damnit - she really was sick. That meant today was going to be worse than yesterday.
But a fever couldn't make today nearly as bad as the week prior, when...-
Toph could feel Katara's presence shift its weight - she was sitting beside Toph. Her ears could detect Katara fussing with the blanket.
"Hey," Katara grunted with some displeasure. The blanket found its way back around Toph, and with it, a little Water Tribe warmth in the form of Katara's side squishing against her own.
Without even thinking, Toph leaned her head against the furry-edged mantle Katara was wearing. The clothing smelt of the familiar penguin-otter fur, mixed together with Katara's personal smell. It was a welcoming sensation to wake up to, especially with Katara's slender arms tugging the half-asleep Toph against her. Katara's thicker, warmer clothing was pleasant to the touch on this bitter-cold...morning? Was it morning already? It didn't feel as if Toph had gotten enough rest for it to be morning yet, but...-
Katara initiated conversation as she seemed to every single time they awoke since the recent 'incident.'
"Did you sleep all right?"
"No," Toph croaked in earnest.
"Sorry," Katara cooed with empathy, planting a small kiss on Toph's forehead. She let her lips linger, detecting the girl's temperature.
"Still feel like junk," Toph yawned.
Katara hummed her understanding, scratching Toph's shoulders lightly before separating their bodies. Toph tolerated the gestures - it was too early and she was feeling too cruddy for cuddling.
"I know," Katara acknowledged Toph's statement with an apologetic tone. "I do, too. I know sleeping hasn't been the same since-"
"Don't," Toph grimly cut that thought off.
She could hear Katara's breath stiffen, then release a sigh.
"We have to keep moving," Katara concluded.
"Mmph," Toph grunted her reluctant agreement.
"If you let me out," Katara explained, trying to fumble back to their routine, "I'll go try to find us something for breakfast while you try to stay warm."
Toph's opinion of this 'breakfast' endeavor was pessimistic, but she was too tired and too cranky to bother voicing it. Besides, Katara would still try to make her optimistic wish a reality, anyway, no matter how antagonistic Toph acted - she'd fight tooth and nail to make it happen, no matter how dreary things seemed.
And that was exactly why Katara was the only person Toph felt safe traveling with anymore.
"Toph?" Katara probed, her presence lingering a few feet away, near their tent's entrance.
Without a word, Toph focused her attention on the tent of solidified dirt around them. She pressed out her palms in a lazy flicking motion, toppling down the tent's door and dissolving it back into soft earth, leaving the other sides still standing.
Oh, jeez. The air that rushed in tingled at her bangs, chilling the sweat on her brows. It was definitely morning, from the smell of the air. And a bitter cold morning, at that.
"Thanks," Katara said, her voice mixed with the sound of a brisk breeze as her vibrations exited the tent. Toph could hear the jangling of their metal teapot against their canteens, rustled together by the morning wind. With her palms against the dirt, Toph sensed the subtleties of Katara's movements - her arms were wound up, twirling around the back of her head. She was pinning her hair up in a bun with that headband, like usual.
The very thought of the band Katara wrapped her hair in - and who it had once belonged to - caused the stone bracelet on Toph's right bicep to shiver.
In noticing her bracelet, even more difficult memories were getting stirred, eliciting it to tremble just a bit more. She flicked her wrist, unbending the space rock from her arm and letting it slide down her sleeve, into her palm.
"The bay's close," Katara explained as she finishing wrapping up her hair. "I shouldn't be too long."
Toph thumbed at the soothing rock in her hand - her meteor stone - as Katara's clothing shuffled up ahead. The waterbender was checking to make sure she had everything she needed. Toph savored the sound of Katara's hunting knife sliding out of its leather sheath, then back in.
Katara yawned, which in turn caused Toph to yawn even deeper.
"You should bundle back up," Katara advised with some sternness, finishing her equipment adjustments. "We still have some tea leaves left, don't we?"
"Mm," Toph hummed an affirmative, sniffing up her runny nose.
"I'll make us some after I get some fresh water," Katara promised. There was a pause. Then, Katara asked, trying to assume her more optimistic tone, "Does that sound good?"
The idea of some morning tea was a small solace to look forward to, even if the promise of meat for breakfast was a failure.
Toph warped her lips into a smile for her partner, as she knew how far a small smile could go to motivate Katara at that point.
"All right," Katara said. "Stay warm."
Toph did as she was told, fussing their blanket around her body and dropping her head back onto their shared pillow. She inhaled another yawn through the pillow's fabric - the turkey-duck down feathers encased within had lost much of their scent by now.
"Stay safe," Katara bid loudly to Toph, who was curling up. "Love you."
Katara lingered near the tent's entrance, the wind nudging at her, but she received no reply that morning.
Katara's mouth was watering at the scent of the roasted fish she was nearly done cooking. It had taken a lot longer than she'd hoped, but she had managed to nab a trio of fish that morning, culled from the ocean's waters. It seemed like the ocean was the only place she could ever find fish any more, and it grew more difficult with each season.
Toph was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, drinking up her second cup of tea in slow, steady sips. Toph's occasional hums of satisfaction from the beverage made the effort in making it quite worth the while. Katara was no brewer like Iroh, but he had taught her a thing or two during their time holding out in Omashu. She could at least boil a nice, hot herbal tea that would hopefully sooth poor Toph's throat.
As if triggered by her own thoughts, Katara coughed, sending a second and third cough into her sleeve. This gave way to a painful sneeze that didn't expel much, but rather just built up pressure in her skull. Katara's head throbbed for a moment, but she still had food to tend to. With a weary sniffle, she overcame her dizziness and refocused on the sizzling fish in front of her, releasing a weary groan through her nose. She could see speckles of odd light dance at the edges of her vision for a few seconds, like wayward fireflies.
"Bless you," Toph mumbled from across the tiny campfire.
These had been the first words Toph had uttered since Katara had returned to camp with food and water.
"Thanks," Katara replied, more grateful to hear Toph's voice than for the gesture itself. Prodding at her nose, Katara considered their circumstances.
Fish was the only reliable source of food in the region at that point, and with her waterbending, it was easy to separate the liquid from sea salt, making for a convenient supply of water. On the other hand, everyone else seemed to be having similar ideas, like the swamp-dwelling tribe they had encountered on their way south from Omashu. And in such disparaging times, encountering people at all was a risky proposition, as their experience traversing past that fishing village the other day had reminded. She could only hope things would go better at the next village.
Katara broke free from her worry-warting to notice that their fish looked about done, so she removed the sticks they were perched on from the dirt and stuck them back in a new spot, away from the fire's blaze.
Bitter and ironic that fire was the root of all of their problems, yet it was their saving grace all the same - its sweet kiss brought tea to life and enabled them to use the life of smaller creatures to lengthen their own spans.
"Breakfast is ready," Katara advised. Her voice was a bit more hoarse than when she'd departed that morning. The chilly, salty air of the bay had not exactly helped out her throat. "Could you pour me some of that tea?" Katara requested.
Toph casually scooped up the metal teapot by its handle and drained some of its liquid into the second pewter cup they possessed. With metal and earthenware at their disposal, Toph's vibration-sensing skills could 'see' how full the pot and cups alike were.
Katara got up, carrying their three fish over around the fire. With a grunt of relief at the daunting task of 'breakfast' now complete at last, Katara dropped herself down beside Toph. She scooted her hips against her neighbor's, and handed Toph a fish on a stick, while Toph bended the fresh cup of tea in Katara's direction.
The girls took a moment's respite to drink tea, eat fish, and listen to the crackle of the campfire as it slowly died.
After a couple of minutes had passed and two of their three fish were depleted, Katara handed the last fish to Toph, but the stubborn girl nudged it right back without a word.
"You need to keep your strength up," Katara insisted, scratching behind her ear. "We still have at least another day's journey before Chin Village, and there's no telling if we'll find anything on the way. C'mon." She placed the food in Toph's lap, but Toph sternly flipped it back again.
Katara frowned, studying Toph's expression. The blind girl had been so silent ever since their incident in the swamp, and it was starting to get discouraging. The last thing they needed was for one of them to start slipping down into that pit of despair. Even if Toph was blind, she still emoted, if in ways most might not detect. But Katara had figured a lot of it out by now. In that specific instant, Katara felt she could decipher why Toph was refusing to eat more: 'You're the one out there catching fish and collecting water and pulling my weight around - you need this food more than I do.'
Had Toph actually put the idea into words, it likely would've come out a bit more rude, but Katara knew this was the gist of it. That particular way Toph's brows were furrowing, her face hollow and motionless...That was the way Toph looked whenever she 'wasn't pulling her own weight.'
From an objective standpoint, Katara knew that she technically needed the extra nutrition to recoup what was lost in retrieving the resources to begin with. But she still didn't like it.
A whole fuss made over a single, measly fish.
That was the world they were living in now.
As Toph finished off her second cup of tea, Katara devoured the last of their breakfast. The campfire was now a dull glow of embers, their tent was crumbled back into dirt, and their supplies were sitting in two packs behind them.
The wind licked at the dying coals, caressing over girls' faces. Katara felt a shiver jump up her spine, and she wrapped her arms around Toph's side, pressing their bodies together. She craned her neck to study Toph's face again, noting the specks of ashy fish left on her lips. Katara wet her thumb with her tongue and rubbed the residue off of Toph's lips, then kissed the girl on the temple.
All the while, Toph didn't anything or reciprocate in any way, but merely coughed into her wrist.
Katara was stung by this. It had taken so long to get Toph to a point where they would return affection in kind...but now...-
"Toph, are you...doing OK?"
Toph huffed through her nose, then shrugged up her shoulder, easing Katara's weight off of her. She was obviously not in a touchy-feely mood today. Just like yesterday. And the day before that...
Katara verbally poked, "I'm sorry, you know."
"I know," Toph said, her voice even more hoarse than Katara's was. She coughed again. "Just drop it."
"I miss him, too. But...you don't see me-"
"Toph, I want us to talk about this."
"Well, I don't."
"I think you need to," Katara expressed firmly.
Toph's head rolled off to one side with frustration as she explained, "There's nothing to talk about."
"Then why are you keeping me out?" Katara demanded quietly, a hint of desperation leaking through her clenched teeth.
"I'm not...trying to, it...-" Toph drizzled out a huff, scratching at her boar-q-pine hair nervously while letting the sentence trail off.
"If you feel like losing Momo was my fault," Katara murmured shakily. "I don't...get why you don't just say it."
"I don't feel that way," Toph earnestly mumbled. "He was...a lemur-bat. That's all he was."
"That's not all he was."
"And now he's gone," Toph continued, her head sagging with stoicism.
"..." Katara didn't know how to react to Toph's cold approach to coping with what had happened at the swamp.
"Just like everyone else, right?" said Toph. "What do you want me to do, Katara? Cry about it?"
"'Cuz if we start crying every time this happens, then...-"
"I don't know," Katara moaned, rubbing her palm over her face. "I just wanted you to admit that you felt something, instead of...-"
"I did 'feel something,'" croaked Toph. "It pissed me off. If that counts as a 'feeling' still. Not that it matters."
"It does matter. Feeling something is better than-"
"-better than feeling nothing at all, I know."
"Than could you st-" Katara's aching throat couldn't take any more arguing, and she lost herself in a series of coughs.
Toph patted Katara's back, clearing her own throat. She picked up the half-empty cup of tea in the dirt by Katara's knee and shoved it toward the direction of her ally's face.
"Drink," Toph commanded tiredly. "Just drop it, already."
Katara did as she was told with some reluctance. She swallowed her tea in a a few slow, steady gulps. She irritably slammed the pewter cup onto the ground.
"For later," Katara cited, referring to one of their 'rules' regarding these sorts of conversations.
"For later," Toph confirmed in an irate sigh.
Toph slid her bare foot across the dirt, using her bending to shove a mound of earth over top of their now deceased campfire.
Katara slid her fingers down Toph's arm, clasping her slender fingers inbetween Toph's stubby ones. Both girls squeezed at each other's hands in a single, brief moment.
It was time to get back on the road.
It was going to be another quiet day. Katara didn't like that prospect one bit.
The quiet days were the truly unsettling ones.
"We face up to awful things because we can't go around them, or forget them. The sooner you say 'Yes, it happened, and there's nothing I can do about it,' the sooner you can get on with your own life. You've got children to bring up. So you've got to get over it. What we have to get over, somehow we do. Even the worst things."
― Annie Proulx