Toph set her alarm for six in the morning, even though she never had to get up that early on a regular day. It didn't matter anyway; she woke up some time after five and lay in bed, her fingers clenching and unclenching in the coverlet. She couldn't wake too early, or her parents would get suspicious.
Not that she had to worry as much what her parents thought. She wasn't sure how much of their change of heart was sincere and how much of it was fear of what the neighbors would think if she ran away again, but still. She had space to breathe these days, and that was all that mattered.
And today... today was the best day.
As soon as her alarm went off, she smacked the silence button and jumped out of bed. The floor was freezing, but she ran over to the vanity anyway and flicked on the lights. Then she dressed--quickly, even though her hands were shaking. Not like a t-shirt and a skirt were that hard to get into anyway. She made herself wait before she put on makeup, but only because she didn't want to smear it.
The girl that looked back at her was not as in-your-face as the persona Toph had once reached for, but she was nobody's wilting lily, either. A good balance. She grinned at herself and touched her reflection, loving the way it matched her picture of herself in her head.
Her parents were awake, but they ignored her as she walked out the door; they'd already had their party for her. Toph had sat docilely in a pretty dress while relatives she hardly knew cooed over how she'd grown; she made polite conversation with other rich kids and ate her cake with a smile. At least they didn't ask her to do it on a regular basis anymore.
And in six months she'd be off to college, and she wouldn't have to deal with it for a whole damn semester.
It made her want to skip. Nobody was looking, so Toph indulged the urge all the way down her driveway. Then she put her tough face back on and pulled her phone from her pocket.
"Hey." Sokka's voice was sleepy and muffled, like he had his face shoved into the pillow.
"Hey," Toph echoed, hoping none of the glee bubbling in her chest spilled into her voice. She didn't want him to think she cared too much, after all. It wouldn't be good for him. "So you got off work, right?"
"Yep. What's this about anyway, huh? There better be meat involved."
She twirled, just to watch her skirt flare. It was too early for anyone to be watching, not in this part of town. "We'll go out to lunch, Snoozles, don't worry." She hesitated, but the words spilled out because she was too excited. "It's my birthday."
Sokka waited a long time to answer. The seventeen-years-old thing had always thrown him. "...Really."
"Jeeze, Snoozles. You could try to sound happy for me. I'm a freaking adult now." She hoped it didn't sound too much like she wanted to use that. Yeah, she could leave now, and her parents couldn't do shit about it. But she didn't feel like leaving anymore. Or, at least, not enough that she had to.
"I am happy!" His answer was too quick now; a blush came into Toph's cheeks, and she was glad it was a phone conversation. He cleared his throat. "I just, uh, I was just wondering what that has to do with me. Don't you have shit to do with your parents or something?"
Toph turned the corner out of the rich part of town. She'd felt good before; now she felt even better. She was finally getting close to what she wanted. "Nope. My birthday present is a whole freaking day--and night--to myself."
"...And you want to spend it with me?" His voice was surprisingly soft. Toph bit her lip, wishing she could stifle how much she liked it. And not, at the same time.
"Well, you are the only person I know who doesn't drive me up the fucking wall. Most of the time, anyway." She switched the phone to her other ear. "Wanna get breakfast?"
"You're paying?" Toph didn't bother to reply. "Shit yeah. I want pancakes."
His voice had lost the softness, but there was something beneath it all the same. Toph hung up. She glanced to her left, then to her right, and then she started skipping again.
Sokka ordered pancakes and an omelette, which came with more pancakes. Toph just wanted coffee and a muffin, most of which she didn't eat. A pleasant nervousness twisted her stomach; she couldn't seem to look away from his face, and she wondered if he noticed. Sheesh. Watching a guy stuff his face wasn't supposed to be sexy.
As they ate, they talked--mostly about music, but also about Sokka's job, Toph's college applications. It was good; it was soothing. She couldn't keep a stupid smile from her face, so she picked the blueberries from her muffin and flicked them at him.
"Why did you get blueberries if you weren't going to eat them?" Sokka demanded, wiping one off his shirt. "I dressed up for you, too."
Toph smirked. "Who said the point of blueberries is eating them?"
As they waited for the hostess to process their check, Sokka pulled his phone out of his pocket and squinted down at it. He texted like he was being forced to decode the language of the ancient Maya--slowly, and with great difficulty. Toph raised her eyebrows, and Sokka shrugged. "My sister always wants an excuse to make cake. And Aang always wants an excuse to tell somebody happy birthday."
Toph crossed her arms. "That kid is too damn cheerful." She ran a hand through her hair, hoping she looked casual. "So that means you want to go back to your place and see them, then?"
"Not 'til later," said Sokka, all innocence. "After my dad wakes up, I mean. Not that it matters too much. Tonight's his night off. He likes you, you know."
Toph didn't have to answer that because she had to pay, and by the time they were outside, she felt she could safely ignore it. "So then what do you want to do?"
Sokka blinked. "It's your birthday, Toph. It's up to you."
They ended up going to the zoo, because after some conversation Sokka was appalled to hear she had never been. "I think my parents thought I would get avian flu or something," she muttered as they waited in line for tickets. "It's not like I had an immune deficiency or anything. They could have let me out of the house once in a while."
"Maybe they just don't like big animals," Sokka suggested. He always was more diplomatic.
It was a good trip. They made faces at the monkeys, and a couple of lions started having sex while they were at the big cat enclosure. She and Sokka giggled like six-year-olds, ignoring the disapproving glances from the parents nearby. They bought soft pretzels from a cart because Sokka's mind was never far from his stomach. Toph ended up smearing half her cheese on Sokka's face because he made some crack about the way she dressed around her parents.
At some point--maybe when they were in the monkey house, maybe when they were standing by the penguin tank--he put his arm around her, and they walked like that, leaning against each other.
Katara took a long time to text back--she'd had tests or something. But, as usual, she was all too happy to gush: her reply took two texts and too many exclamation points. Toph pretended not to care either way, although the idea of cake pleased her. Her parents never allowed her too many sweets, and her mother was trying to get her to go gluten-free. As if.
Aang would be there, and Zuko and Mai, too. "It's like a real party," said Toph, propping her chin on her fists.
"I thought you had a party already," said Sokka, glancing at her sideways. He'd been doing that a lot, ever since they had to step away from each other for some reason. Like he was wondering if he had her permission to do it again.
Toph snorted. "Not with people who actually like me. Are you kidding?"
He ruffled her hair. "Your parents do. Really."
Toph wrinkled her nose and said nothing. Nevertheless, as they walked out of the zoo, she took his hand. Like it was normal. Like it didn't make her pulse speed up. Sokka just squeezed her fingers.
They went to a movie after that--some terrible comedy, only because nothing else was showing and they had some time to kill. Toph kept her shoulder pressed up against Sokka's, although she told herself that was just so he wouldn't eat all the freaking popcorn. They still had to get a refill three-quarters of the way through the movie.
"Where do you even put it all?" she demanded when they were leaving the theater.
"Didn't I tell you I'm part black hole?"
Finally, it was time for the party. Toph didn't really realize it until she walked inside Sokka's apartment, but she'd been bracing herself for a repeat of last night. She might have been wearing comfortable clothes, and she might have been around the only people who actually got her, but--well, goddammit, she was just too used to things sucking.
But Aang and Katara were already there, smearing frosting on each other instead of the cake. Hakoda was asleep on the couch, but he woke up as soon as she and Sokka came inside and shoved a pair of big balloons at her. "No party is complete without balloons," he informed her gravely.
And then Zuko and Mai showed up, draped around each other like conjoined twins. And then they were eating pizza and cake, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Toph forgot it was ever supposed to be awkward.
She and Sokka sat next to each other at the kitchen table and then on the couch, but he didn't touch her. She was glad of it, really, because she hated PDA, but she'd be lying if she pretended she wasn't a little disappointed too. All that buildup for nothing.
Aang and Katara had to leave first, because Aang had work early in the morning--he had a job at a bakery--and Katara had more tests tomorrow, since it was midterm season. Zuko and Mai went after that, because... well, because they were Zuko and Mai. Toph just kind of assumed they had sex whenever they went out of anyone's sight. Hakoda hung around for a while longer, but then he went off to have a few beers with his work buddies.
And then it was just her and Sokka, on the couch together. As soon as the door clicked shut, they turned to each other and spoke at the same time. Toph blushed and turned her face away, trying to look like a tough girl instead of some dumb kid with a crush.
Sokka cleared his throat. "You go first. It's your birthday, after all."
Toph swallowed. Well. There was no avoiding looking like some dumb kid, so she might as well own it. She crossed her arms over her chest and turned to him again, keeping her voice low so it wouldn't squeak or anything embarrassing like that. "Today was... today was really nice." She rubbed her ear, fighting the urge to cover her cheeks so he wouldn't see her blush. "Um. Thanks for coming with me. And--you know."
He put his hands behind his head. "No problem, Toph." He cleared his throat. "So, uh... you never said anything about birthday presents."
Toph tilted her head to the side. "My parents don't really do that shit, I guess. I just get what I want." She put her arms down and fisted her hands in her lap. "You don't have to think about that. I mean--shit. I don't want to sound like a jerk or anything, but you probably can't afford it or anything, and--"
"Toph." It was like he'd flipped a switch: his voice had gone from awkward to perfectly confident, and she couldn't help but look at him. His mouth curled in the slightest of smiles. "It's not like that. Close your eyes for a second."
Toph's hands clenched. "Why?"
"Because I didn't wrap it, okay? Seriously. Close your eyes."
She was still blushing, but she didn't really care: she did as she was told. Sokka's fingers brushed across her cheeks, and he cupped her face in his hands. Then he kissed her. Toph sat perfectly still--not because she didn't want to kiss back, but because she wanted to remember this moment perfectly.
"Okay. You can open your eyes now." She did. Their faces were still inches apart. "Good present?"
In answer, she grabbed him by the shirtfront and gave him the kiss she'd meant to for months. It was a good kiss.