Republic City lay half made under a heavy layer of snow, the scaffolding and the leafless trees stark, like spider-fly webs, against the shining white sky. Ty Lee ducked under the tent flap and into the warmer shadows inside. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she waited for the woman seated on the floor with the soles of her shoes pressed together to acknowledge her, but the woman didn't move. Finally, Ty Lee spoke, "So they finally got you to wear shoes, huh?"
Toph's eyes snapped open. "Yeah, laugh it up, Pinky."
Glancing down at her green jacket and brown-green pants, Ty Lee furrowed her brow. "Do you even know what pink is?"
"What are you doing here?" Toph shot back instead of answering.
Ty Lee shrugged, and then paused, forgetting for the moment, that Toph couldn't tell sitting on the carpeted floor. "I wanted to see you?"
Toph's arms left her knees and folded themselves across her chest.
Doing her best to force down a nervous giggle, Ty Lee pasted on a carefree smile and strode across the carpet to the utilitarian iron table shoved to one side of the tent. There was a small, flat jade engraving standing on the table, of a baby girl in a cloth cap. She picked it up. "Is this Lin? She's so cute!"
Toph's head swung around to face the sound of Ty Lee's voice, and her eyes trained on her like knives, ready to rip into her flesh. "Shut up. You're the one who left me."
Ty Lee ducked her head and ran her finger over the surface of the engraving, tracing Lin's pudgy arm. "I just said she was cute."
Toph's feet hissed against the carpet as she crossed the floor. She put her hand over Ty Lee's, and followed her fingers down to the jade. "Yeah, that's Lin." She lifted it out of Ty Lee's hand, her own finger moving along the contours of her daughter's face. "Don't know why I keep this. Doesn't look anything like her to me."
"Who's her father?" Ty Lee let the question spill out into the world between them, as light as possible, as if she could really keep it as light as it needed to be, as if she could somehow make Toph think she was just curious by willing it. And she was so, so grateful for the carpet under them, to shield her from Toph's senses.
"Do you really want to know?" Toph thrust her lip out, like an unhappy little girl, then pulled it back in and pressed it thin, like an unhappy old woman, neither of which she was. "Does it matter?"
Ty Lee wasn't sure what to say to those carefully not-angry words. She wasn't sure what Toph wanted her to say. "No," she settled for. It was a lie, but that was normal. "Are you still with him?"
Toph's hand tightened around the jade engraving. "I was never with him. We weren't together." She set it back on the table and faced Ty Lee, her hair falling into her eyes. "It was like it was with the two of us, you know? But just a couple of times, a long time ago."
"Okay, that's um..." Like the two of them. Tears prickled at the corners of Ty Lee's eyes, and she blinked them back. It shouldn't hurt that much to hear it. She was the one who had made it that way. But she couldn't stop remembering Toph on Kyoshi Island with her, lips and nose white with the paint she had kissed off of Ty Lee's face. "Okay."
Resting her hand on the iron table, taking comfort, Ty Lee knew, from it's stability and the metal form she could feel stretching out beyond what her hand could touch, Toph let out a huff. "You know, I know why you're here. If you're going to ask if you can stay the night, just ask."
Ty Lee's eyes were drawn against her will to the cage at the back of Toph's tent office, empty, ready to be filled with drunks, and vandals, or kids who didn't go to school, and maybe, someday soon with murderers and monsters, and people like Azula who made other people bleed for fun. She blinked, and closed her eyes against the cage bars. "Do you want me to stay the night?" she felt her voice tremble.
Toph sighed. "Yeah, sure. Just come over after Lin's in bed."
This is what you wanted, Ty Lee's mind whispered to her as she stepped forward. Her thumb brushed Toph's cheek, then her hand cupped it, and Toph didn't move away. The gloom and the dusty scent of the carpet and the tent walls all around them weighed heavily on her, stifling her, and even though she was the one moving forward, her feet itched to run away. Her whole body quivered with the need to be out of there. Toph tipped her head up, and wrapped her arms around Ty Lee's to pull her head down. Her lips met Ty Lee's, hard, yet soft, chilled, yet warm, and Ty Lee let her own lips open. I want this, Ty Lee told herself, and it felt like she was lying, because with a suddenness like Azula's lightning, all she wanted was to be out under the white, snowy sky.
There were no lights glowing out of the cracks between Toph's shutters. And even though Ty Lee made herself remember that it made sense, that if Lin was in bed, there was nobody inside to need the light, it didn't make the house any less dark and still, or the front step any less foreboding as she knocked on the door. She sucked in a shaky breath and held it, without even noticing that she had stopped breathing until her lungs began to burn, and the air rushed out of her as the door swung open.
Toph stood in the doorway, the street lights and her neighbors' lanterns illuminating her shadowy form. "So you actually showed up."
"Yeah," Ty Lee whispered. "I guess I did."
Her feet shuffled, crunching in the snow awkwardly as Toph stood there in the doorway, a small, almost confused frown tugging at her lips. At last, she said, "Well, are you going to stand there all night, or are you going to come in?"
Tilting her head a little to the side and letting her lips twitch up, Ty Lee crossed the threshold and took the hand Toph held out for her. Toph's fingers locked around hers. The door shut behind them, closing out the yellow glare of the street lamps, the soft sound of its latching made thunderous by the dark and by Ty Lee's own mind.
Around and within Ty Lee's hand, Toph's own was steady and strong, and warm in the cold. Toph's grin glinted in the shadows. The lines of light gleaming around the edges of the shutters flickered across her face as she pulled Ty Lee along through the dizzying darkness.
For a moment, Ty Lee felt as if she were flying, as if she were disconnected from the earth. Her eyes closed and her finger jerked, wishing to find the pressure points in Toph that would strip her of her bending and her sight, so that for a little while, they could be equals in the darkness.
But she didn't. Her hand stayed in Toph's, and her other hand fluttered behind her, and she let Toph pull her, running headlong across the stone floor to her room at the end of the hall.
When Ty Lee opened her eyes, Toph was already awake and tracing a line between Ty Lee breasts with one finger. "Morning," she said.
Ty Lee smiled, and shivered at the feel of Toph's finger against her skin. "Yeah, morning."
The bedroom, with it's stone floor and wide open shutters was icy cold. Ty Lee drew the quilt up around her shoulders, but as the blanket moved, Toph pulled her hand back with an uncertain frown.
Catching Toph's hand, Ty Lee pressed it to her chest. "I'm just cold," she laughed softly. "You don't have to stop."
"It's not that cold," Toph snorted, pulling in closer and hooking one cold little foot around Ty Lee's leg. "Warmer than Kyoshi."
"I haven't lived on Kyoshi Island in a long time." Ty Lee stared up at the bed's wooden canopy. "Wow. You and me, it's been a while, huh?"
"Sure, I guess," Toph yawned.
"I um..." Ty Lee grimaced. "I didn't bring anything with me to wear, except what I was wearing, and since you kind of tore-"
Toph stuck her tongue out at her. "Should have thought of that before you came."
Ty Lee let out an amused huff. "Thanks so much."
"If I give you a shirt, am I going to see it again?" Toph teased.
In spite of herself, it hurt. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know what I mean." Toph pulled free the hand Ty Lee had been clutching to her chest and wrapped both her hands around Ty Lee's. "Every time you leave, I don't know if that's it, if you're ever gonna come back."
"I'm not a thief, Toph." Ty Lee forced herself not to yank her hands away. "You'll get your stupid shirt back."
"Hey Pinky, It's not about the shirt." Toph's thumb felt so good rubbing circles into the back of her hand. "It's okay," she murmured. "I know you."
She knew her. Ty Lee wanted to cry. She wanted to run away and never look back.
But she wasn't going to. She had a choice, to disappoint Toph, to run away and hide and pretend that she had never come to Republic City, but a choice, and that was what made it possible. That was what made it okay.
"I'm not going to be leaving for a long time, maybe not ever. In fact, that's why..." She stopped, and gathered up her courage. "That's why I asked about Lin's father yesterday, I, uh, well, if I'm going to be around for a while, you know, Lin's his daughter too, and if I'm going to be in her life-"
"Wow." Toph's eyes narrowed into a fierce, unfocused glare, her voice low. "That's one seriously huge assumption you're making, that I'll let you anywhere near my daughter."
It almost didn't connect, for a second. The idea that she, of all people, would ever do anything... "I wouldn't hurt a child! What are you..." She trailed off, unable to continue. There was, she remembered, a twelve-year-old girl once, tasting that first rush of fear at the hands of another girl, wearing pink, with a braid down her back. But the war was so long ago. "I wouldn't."
"I never said you would," Toph snapped. "I'm sure you'd just be great with her."
"I don't understand," she breathed.
"No, you don't." Toph almost spat, leaning so low over her that her nose poked between Ty Lee's eyes. "I'm not seventeen anymore. I got a kid now, and I'm not going to let you come in and be all sweetness and love to her, and then when she's good and attached, just disappear one day and leave me to explain to her that 'Oh, that's just what Ty Lee does.'"
"I won't." She hated the tear that ran down her face and the way it betrayed her. "I won't do that, I promise."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Toph said heavily.
Ty Lee lifted herself off the bed, out of the nest of warm blankets. "I'm not lying! If you want I can get up right now and I can promise again with my feet on the floor so you can feel that I'm telling the truth for yourself." And even as she said it, her heart hammered inside her chest with the fear that she really was lying, and Toph would know it before she did.
Toph stretched out under the covers and sighed hard, face turned away. "Doesn't help," she pronounced. "I can't tell. It always feels like you're lying, even when you're telling the truth."
Suddenly, Ty Lee felt sick. And the overwhelming urge to run left her skin feeling far too hot and stretched too thin on her body, because there was only one other person for whom Toph couldn't sort the truth from the lies, and that was Azula. And Ty Lee already shared so much with Azula, that Azula had made her share, or that she had wanted to share before she had learned to be afraid of her. She didn't need to share anything else with Azula, ever again.
But Azula's lies sounded just like the truth. And Ty Lee always felt like a liar, no matter what she did, because Azula had made her into the kind of girl who could smile and tell her she was wonderful and amazing, when all she wanted to do was run far away.
"I'm not twenty years old anymore either," she whispered, voice hoarse and choked off with the misery she was learning how not to crush within herself. Burying it had been so much safer before. "I'm not the same."
Toph rubbed her foot against Ty Lee's and let her voice grow soft, rueful. "I'm not mad at you, you know, I just can't..."
"Can't trust me." Ty Lee threw the blankets off of herself. The shock of the piercing cold air hitting her skin forced the her tears up to the surface, blurring in her eyes. She started to stand. "I shouldn't have come back. It was a stupid idea, I'm going to-"
"No, wait!" Toph snatched Ty Lee's wrist. "I told you, it's okay."
Ty Lee looked away. The realization hit her that it wouldn't have mattered if Toph could have known if she were lying. Trust wasn't about truth, or lies, or belief. Trust was about giving somebody else the power to hurt. The idea that Ty Lee could hurt anybody was almost... Maybe it was just the freezing air all over her bare skin, worming its way into every bit of her. She wondered if this was what Azula had felt like when she had power, alive, and terrified and thrilled, and as if her skin were dissolving, and her whole body were bleeding at once. But she just wanted it to stop. To Azula, it was winning.
"Come on," Toph wheedled, rubbing the bumps rising up on Ty Lee's arms. "Come back to bed."
"I shouldn't have come back," she said again, but she let Toph draw her back into the bed and drag the blankets up around them both.
"Course you should have," Toph shot back. She pushed her warm body against Ty Lee's chilled flesh, and Ty Lee felt her begin to shiver as Toph wrapped her arms around her and drew her into the little bubble of warmth beneath the blankets that their bodies had made before. Her lips brushed Ty Lee's forehead, which turned into a kiss. "I could get used to having you here."
Never before had anything sounded quite so much like absolution to her, or quite so much like an offer of hope. A long time ago, she had thought there were no more tears left in her, that she had been hurt so bad that she could never be hurt again. The bits of her that could hurt had been burned away. She was so stupid back then. She wiped the tears away, forced down the pain in the safe way, and the words slipped out, raw and despairing, disbelieving whatever hope Toph was trying to give her, "What am I supposed to do?"
"Shh." Toph held her, and at her words, she held her tighter. The silence pooled between them for minutes, moments, however long it took for Ty Lee's breathing to slow, and for it to feel like forever. "Just... stay. Stay, and we'll go from there."
"Yeah," Ty Lee said almost airlessly. "Yeah. We'll go from there."
"It's okay." Toph leaned over and cupped Ty Lee's cheek with one hand, and Ty Lee longed to stay there forever with the callused ridges of Toph's fingers against her face and the wan winter sun pouring in through the window. "You're okay. Stay."
Swallowing, Ty Lee let herself nod, and burrow down deeper into the bed, and turn her face into Toph's chest to listen to the heartbeat beneath the skin.