They spent the rest of the class discussing who would have custody of Lin at what times.
Well. Not really discussing. Toph told him.
“The only times I cannot actually have flour baby—”
“Her name is Lin,” said Sokka. He smiled at her lazily, like he was enjoying interrupting her at every turn. Toph was tempted to grab his ear and yank his head up off the desk, but she would get in trouble for that, not him.
“Fine. Lin. The only time I cannot actually have ‘Lin’ in my lap, like we are supposed to, is during my music lessons on Monday night and during my Tai Chi lessons on Friday. I will bring ‘Lin’ to you at the last bell. Fair?”
Sokka tilted his head from side to side, considering this. “You know, there really needs to be more trust present in our relationship. You talk like I don’t know anything about babies, but you’re not even holding her right.”
Toph looked down at the flour sack, resting between her legs. “What are you talking about? I’ve got hold of it.”
“Yes, but if you tried putting a real baby like that, she’d fall off your lap in two seconds. We’re imagining that Lin can sit up at her delicate stage of development and despite her disability, but, hey, the paper doesn’t say how old she is. Put her in your actual lap and wrap one arm around her waist. Like this.” He gestured, curving his arm around an imaginary baby. Toph frowned at him. “You know we get points off if we don’t handle her like a real baby, right? Better not let Joo Dee see you like that.”
Toph’s mouth twisted into a frown, but she picked up the flour baby and set it on her lap like Sokka demonstrated. “Better?”
“Good job. Now Lin feels safe and secure.” He slid his arm under his cheek. “There’s one problem with your schedule.”
“Don’t tell me you can’t handle having flour baby with you two nights a week.”
“No, that’s fine, but I work nights, so I can’t keep Lin. You’ll have to come pick her up.”
Sokka raised his eyebrows at her. “Don’t tell me you practice piano until nine at night.”
“No, but my mother takes me out to eat after music, and my father takes me out after Tai Chi. Nine is fine, though. My parents can bring me out where you work so I can pick flour baby up.” Sokka was making a face. “What?”
“Just must be nice to be able to eat out,” said Sokka, shaking his head. “Whatever. That sounds good. I work at the U. My shifts always start in the university center, so you can just meet me at the front desk.”
“Very good,” said Toph, leaning back in her chair. She paused, biting her lip. “Do you work Saturday nights?”
Sokka shook his head. “I’ve got Saturday and Sunday night off. Why? Will Lin interfere with your studying or something? You really should have thought of that before we decided to have this child.”
Toph glared at him. “I’m not studying. I have—stuff to do.”
Sokka raised his eyebrows at her, grinning a little. “What, like partying? Come on. I’m not even in your year and I know that you’re the biggest stick in the mud in the whole class.”
“And everybody knows you’re the biggest senior slacker in the history of this school, but I didn’t bring that up, did I?” Her voice was sharp; it must have surprised Sokka, because he blinked a few times and sat up.
“Okay, okay, that was out of line. Saturdays are just the only nights I get good sleep, but whatever. It’s not like I’m not used to little kids waking me up.”
Toph wanted to ask him about the kids he kept referencing—Sokka only had one sibling, and she was a sophomore, not young enough for Sokka to ever have to change her diapers or anything. But it wasn’t any of her business, and, anyway, the bell was about to ring. “Fine. You get the baby for the weekend. Same rules as before. Remember to come pick the flour baby up tonight.”
That afternoon, Toph waited out front, the flour sack balanced on her lap, for fifteen minutes after the last bell rang before scowling and marching into school to look around for Sokka. She cursed at herself for not getting his class schedule—she would fix that tomorrow.
The library was the last place she thought to check, but she found him stretched out on top of a notebook, a calculus book open beside him. Toph plopped the flour sack down on the table. Sokka sat up with a start. “Oh, jeeze, that time already?” He rubbed his eyes. “Cool, cool. I’ll take good care of Lin.”
“You’d better,” said Toph, already walking away.
Toph’s mother wrinkled her nose when Toph explained the assignment, which was the first time Toph remembered ever agreeing with her mother about anything. She almost opened her mouth to complain openly, but she buried the words. She and her parents never had anything to talk about. It was just the way they were.
Toph had assumed that a night job at the university meant some kind of custodial work, so she was surprised to see Sokka leaning against the front desk wearing an IT uniform. The flour sack was cradled in one arm. He was clearly flirting with the front desk girl; Toph set her jaw and marched up to the counter. “Did you forget about something?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
Sokka smirked. “Course not. I was using Lin to get in with the ladies. Ladies love babies, don’t they, Jun?” He winked at the girl, who gave him a flat look. He held out the flour sack to Toph. “Remember she likes to be read Goodnight Moon before she goes to sleep. And don’t forget her binky or she’ll cry all night. And—”
Toph realized he was not going to say anything serious and walked off, holding the flour sack between both arms.
The next day, Toph slid into health class. Even though they were only devoting one class a week to the flour baby project, she couldn’t help but glance back at Sokka. He was in the same seat as usual, his book propped up to hide the fact that he was already napping. Toph rolled her eyes and got her notebook out.
On Thursday, Sokka was late again. Toph checked the library first, but he wasn’t there, so she went to the cafeteria. Sokka was asleep in the corner, his face hidden behind his bag.
“Do you ever sleep in a bed?” she demanded, poking him.
Sokka grinned at her. “Only when I’m feeling really lucky.” Toph held out the flour sack, but Sokka shook his head. “Hang on a sec. I decided to come prepared this time.” Toph watched, bemused, as Sokka dug around in his backpack. He finally came out with a harness.
Toph stared as Sokka strapped it on. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Nah! I remembered my downstairs neighbor still had hers from when her kids were born, so I figured I might as well take advantage of it. I need my hands for stuff.” He opened the pouch of the harness.
Toph shook her head, but she placed the flour sack in it anyway. “Whatever floats your boat, I guess.”
On Friday, Sokka surprised her by actually showing up on time. “I set an alarm,” he said, sounding proud of himself. Like he deserved a pat on the back for staying awake for once.
“Whatever,” said Toph. “Just be here on Monday.”
Sokka flipped her the same two-fingered salute he had used on the teacher.
That Saturday, Toph went up to her room at nine p.m. sharp, just like every other Saturday. She lay in her bed reading until she heard her parents enter their bedroom an hour later. Then she waited a half-hour more. Once she heard her mother go to the bathroom and return, Toph slid out of bed and reached into the gap between her headboard and the wall, pulling out a drawstring bag. Then she slowly slid her window open and jumped outside, pulling the window shut just as slowly behind her.
Jumping the fence was the only hard part, but she was used to doing it barefoot, and the fall on the other side no longer jarred her. She walked barefoot down the sidewalk until she reached the end of her parents’ neighborhood, marked by a convenience store. She went around back to the bathroom and changed into workout clothes.
As always, she couldn’t resist looking at herself in the mirror once she was dressed, even though she’d seen herself like this a million times.
The Toph Bei Fong who walked down the hallways of her private school was dignified and refined. She didn’t wear dresses because her mother respected that business casual these days included dress pants, but she did wear delicate blouses and jewelry. Her makeup was always perfect, as was her hair.
This Toph was different. Her tank top was battered and ratty, the kind of thing her parets would burn on sight. Her shorts exposed legs corded with muscle. She flexed in the mirror, grinning at her bicep. Yeah. It sucked that she could only do this once a week, but at least she got to do at at all.
And in four years, as long as her grades were perfect, she would be halfway across the country, where her parents couldn’t manage every tiny aspect of her life, and she could finally be like this all the time.
The gym where Toph trained was rough around the edges and in a bad neighborhood, but the people inside were always pretty cool. On Saturday nights, she and other kids came to train in mixed martial arts, and nobody bothered them much.
Toph loved it. The guys in charge of the class were loud and rude and smelly; they yelled in her face when she wasn’t pushing herself and called her nasty nicknames. The other students weren’t much nicer.
That didn’t matter. She could take them all down. For one night a week, she was powerful and in control, and that was more than a lot of people got.
On Monday morning, Toph set herself up outside on the stone wall in front of the school, expecting to wait for Sokka for at least half an hour. She liked arriving at school as soon as it opened in the morning at seven. Her parents thought she had a study group; really, she just liked spending as much time as possible away from home, and her parents wouldn’t let her do anything after school.
But Sokka arrived at 7:15, the flour baby cradled in one arm. He was arguing with his little sister about something—she waved at Toph, and Toph returned it even though she had never said a word to Katara in her life—but once they reached the steps, he stopped, and she went on.
“Here you are,” he said, setting the flour sack down in front of Toph. “Ready for inspection, captain.”
Toph made a face at him, but she still checked the flour baby over for any rips in the plastic wrapping. As far as she could tell, it was fine, so she shifted so she could rest it on her lap as she read.
She was surprised when Sokka set his stuff down next to hers. She lifted her head, expecting a confrontation, but Sokka just shrugged at her. “This is a good study spot. You don’t care, do you?”
She wanted him to leave, but she didn’t know how to say that without sounding like a total bitch, which was not something she needed this early in their partnership. So she shrugged, adjusting the flour sack on her lap. “It’s a free country.”
“Indeed it is.”
She tried to concentrate on her work, but she wasn’t used to studying with a partner—during study hall, she always stayed in the cafeteria because it was quieter than the library once everybody signed out. When she did go to the library, she didn’t sit at a table; she went and hid back behind the stacks, sitting on the floor where no one would think to come looking for her.
And. Well. He wasn’t bad-looking for a stoner/slacker.
Ugh. Boys were the last thing she needed to think about. She forced her mind back to her English project, one hand absently cradling the flour sack in her lap.
Sokka always beat her to class, and he was always asleep. Since she knew they were working together today, she eschewed her usual spot to sit by him to start with. He didn’t even glance up. She frowned, tapping her pen against her notebook as the teacher told them what they were working on today.
“Apparently we’re not very good parents if the baby’s already getting sick,” Toph muttered, leaning back in her seat as a member from each group went up to pick from a bowl.
Sokka snorted; Toph twitched, unaware he’d been listening. He sat up, wiping drool from the side of his mouth. “You really don’t know anything about kids, do you?” Before she could answer, he got up to pick a sickness for their baby and take a copy of the baby health book. They got colic, which was not so bad, all things considered.
“What was that supposed to mean?” Toph asked when he returned.
“No. The kid comment.”
“Oh. Well—jeeze, kids get sick from anything. I mean, they put everything in their mouth, and they spend all their time crawling around on the floor. It’s good for ‘em.” Toph wasn’t sure how to reply, so she reached for the book, but Sokka shook his head. “I got it. You keep an eye on the baby.” He flipped the book open to the index, then to the page for colic. “I do know how to do schoolwork, you know. You saw me doing it this morning.”
She frowned at him. “I don’t understand why you spend all that time studying if you just sleep through all your classes.”
Sokka paused. Then he looked over at her, his eyebrows raised as though to ask if she really wanted to get into that. She stared at him flatly, and Sokka shrugged in acquiescence. “I can sleep through all my classes and get straight A’s, so I don’t really see the point of being awake. Except shop. I’m awake in shop.”
Toph blinked. She’d never bothered to look at the honor roll for the seniors, but she never would in a million years have guessed his name would be anywhere near it. She almost asked him what the heck he had to study for, but that was more conversation than she wanted to make right now. She was confused enough.