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1st March, 2013
Warning: This chapter contains a mild spoiler for.
Walking through the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, Aang was actually able to fully appreciate the beauty of the wealthy city. And the perks of being the Avatar. He had managed to get a room in a beautiful hotel, out of the way and not too busy. The best part was that it was located only several streets away from the Jasmine Dragon, his current destination. Holding Katara's hand, he looked up at his 18 year old girlfriend, smiling.
"I can't believe how much time has passed," she told him wistfully, remembering all they had achieved since the end of the war.
"I can't believe it's taken us four years for the whole group to meet up. It's going to be amazing seeing everyone all in one place again." He gave her a shy glance, and the smile, if possible, became bigger. "We need a break from repairing the temples, even if it is a lot of fun. I can't believe how many secret passages there were!"
"You should invite Toph there. I'm sure she would love it, she didn't get a chance to explore the Western Air Temple last time."
"...We'll see. She might have plans already. She might be betrothed, and have a life, or maybe she started up that Earthbending Academy. I mean, after she stopped writing, I'm not sure how much she wants to see me..." He averted his eyes, quickly changing the subject. "And what about Sokka, have you heard from him?"
Katara's smile was so huge, it looked as though her face would split in half. She let go of his hand to cover her mouth, amazed she had forgotten to tell her boyfriend the news.
"Yeah, apparently Suki is expecting! He's so proud. I actually got the letter just before we left the Air Temple, but I was too distracted. She's few months along, so I guess he was distracted too. Bringing in the Kyoshi Warriors to replace the Dai Li... I mean, it makes sense, but its such huge task!"
The couple turned a corner and saw Iroh's tea shop halfway down the street. Grabbing her hand again, Aang began running down the street. He couldn't wait to see everyone, see how they had changed. He knew that he and Katara were the last to arrive—he had been required to stop by the Earth Palace to tell Kuei that he was off the grid for the next week or so. He didn't want anything interrupting his first vacation in four years.
Running up the stairs, he could see the tea shop had been closed to the general public, giving his friends some much needed privacy. It was difficult to go anywhere when he and his friends were always harassed for autographs or stories. It was nice, but sometimes it was too much. Pulling Katara along behind him, he walked through the customers area and past the kitchen until he arrived at the staff lounge. Stopping at the doorway, he could see that everyone seemed to be there except for Toph. The first person he saw was Zuko, reclining on the lounge with Mai in his arms, his eyes shut. Sokka was at the desk with Suki, this time pouring over a piece of parchment full of numbers. He was muttering to Suki, "if we don't spend money on mangoes or fan and sword polish, we can afford another two weeks off when the baby comes," and had yet to notice them. Then there was Iroh, predictably playing Pai Sho with a woman who looked slightly older than Aang.
He was a little confused. "I thought this was just for the Gaang?" Katara whispered to him. The girl looked familiar, but Aang was sure he would have remembered seeing a girl like her before. He may be in a relationship, but he was still a guy. Sensing a disturbance, Zuko opened his eyes, and was the first to notice the Avatar and Waterbender.
"Aang! Glad you could make it—we were beginning to think you'd forgotten about us," Zuko stood up from the lounge, soliciting a small grunt of dissatisfaction from his fiancée.
"Of course we made it! And you can expect us at the wedding in a few months, too," Katara moved forward to hug the 21 year old, noticing how tall he had become. The scar on his face had faded to a dull orange, just a few shades different than his normal tone. He had kept his hair long—a reminder of the best time of his life, he told them later—but there was no mistaking the regal way he carried himself now.
Hearing Zuko's exclamation, Sokka had stood up, moving to clasp his sister and Aang.
"Katara! Aang! How you guys going?"
"We're great, Sokka," Katara answered for the both of them. "Wow, you look so different, have you lost weight? And look at that moustache! I can't believe its only been what, five months?"
Aang looked over his old friend. Sokka had filled in, growing into his looks and leaving the boyish features behind. The same could be said of Suki, who had moved over to join them, hand placed protectively over her slightly rounded stomach. Both warriors sported higher cheekbones than when they were younger, their eyes thinner and faces leaner.
It's amazing how becoming a parent matures people, Aang thought with a smile.
"And Suki!" The waterbender moved to hug her sister-in-law. "Now I know what a 'healthy pregnant glow' looks like." The two giggled, and moved to sit next to Mai, who had the smallest of smiles watching the two talking so animatedly. She made room on the lounge, and began asking Suki and Katara a few questions. The two were slightly surprised at her involvement, but accepted her gladly.
Aang pulled Zuko away from the door, moving closer to Iroh.
"Zuko, where's Toph? I kind of hoped she would actually come... I thought she'd at least want to see you guys..."
Zuko cocked his head, giving Aang a small smile. "She is here, Aang, you just didn't notice," he told the young Airbender, his smile fading at the words Aang had used but growing bigger as he replied to his friend. Aang looked around, his eyes dancing from Sokka, arms protectively around Suki as she explained the joys of morning sickness to Katara, whose smile, if possible, had become even larger. He noticed Mai participating in the conversation, a little at first but more and more as she grew comfortable around the girls and Sokka. He looked back at Zuko, eyebrows raised. The Fire Lord just gave him an encouraging smile, nodding to Iroh's Pai Sho game. Aang noticed the General's look of concentration, and then the game itself. He could see that tea maker was having difficulty staying ahead of his companion. The Avatar finally let his gaze rest on her. She was only his age, her hair framing her face as the rest flowed down her back, the top straight but with a slight curl as it progressed down her back. She was wearing long, loose fitting pants, the dark green contrasting wonderfully against her alabaster skin. Her stomach was bared as she wore a top that barely hid her bindings. He noticed she had a massive scar running across her stomach, from her right hip to just under navel. Moving closer, he could see that she wasn't looking at the game. Well, she was, but that was all. She wasn't searching possible exploitative moves, wasn't watching her partner sweat it out, trying to read his motives.
"Toph?" He asked the girl, surprised.
"Nice of you to finally notice me, Twinkletoes," she replied, moving her cherry blossom tile. "And that's game, old man," she told Iroh with a grin. He threw his hands up in mock despair.
"Ah, no! Mistress Toph, I will beat you one day," he said with a smile as he cleared the board before making his way into the kitchen, probably to make some tea. Zuko followed his uncle, leaving the two teenagers alone. Toph stood up from the table, approaching her old friend. He smiled at his old friend, even if she couldn't see it. She was still as short as ever, and petite, he noticed. She hadn't filled out as much as Katara had, but she was still perfectly proportional. She stopped barely a foot away, nodding her head up and down, seeming to look him over. She grinned a lopsided smile, and Aang noticed her fingers went to touch the lighter flesh of the strange scar of their own accord. He doubted she even realised that she was doing it.
"Uh, Toph? Are you okay?" he asked her as she shook the bangs from her eyes, the smile not leaving her delicate features. He noted, though, that it barely extended past her lips.
"I'm fine, Aang, what makes you ask?" She asked him, realising she was rubbing the scar and abruptly dropping her hand.
"Oh, uh, no reason, I guess." He rubbed the back of his bald head, and called to Katara.
"Katara! Toph is here! Look how different she is!" Aang grabbed his earthbending teachers hand and lead her to where everyone was seated. His girlfriend jumped slightly in surprise.
"Toph? Is that really you?" Katara looked at her incredulously.
"Why is everyone so surprised? Has my hair changed colour or something?"
"Uh, no... It's just that.... Well, we haven't heard from you in so long... You look like a girl..." Katara finished lamely. Toph raised an eyebrow and placed her hands on her hips, a small frown appearing on her face.
"You mean, I'm not allowed to look like a girl? You mean, I don't already look like one?" The younger girl sneered at the older one. Katara fumbled, trying to explain herself without further offending Toph.
"I just meant that you are looking very... Feminine. It's different. It looks nice!" Katara rushed to make amends, surprise written in her eyes at how sensitive Toph was being. The blind girls' frown was replaced with a smirk.
"Why, thank you, Sugar Queen, that's very nice of you to say." She moved to sit back down at the Pai Sho table. Aang followed her, unsure of how to act around her. She had changed, but he wasn't sure into what.
"Come on, Twinkles, try and beat me," she commanded, pointing slightly above the opposite chair.
"I uh, I kinda wanted to talk to Sokka and Suki.... I haven't seen them in almost 6 months!" Toph glared at the nervous Avatar.
"And we haven't spoken in 2 years."
"Yea, well, Suki is pregnant. Pregnant!" He was slightly annoyed at her. Why was she pressing this? Didn't she realise he didn't want to play Pai Sho at the moment? He didn't want to be around her for too long, not until she apologised. Toph was scary at the best of times, but now her entire personality seems to have been readjusted, she was terrifying. Aang didn't know how to act around her and was nervous that the last time they had spoken would come into the conversation should he be alone with her. He wasn't ready to deal with her yet.
"Whatever. Go talk to Fangirl about little people then." She shooed him away with a flick of her wrist.
The seven friends decided to go out to dinner that night. After all, Katara refused to cook, and seeing as how no one else could make stewed sea prune soup, lotus flower salad, komodo chicken casserole or a flattened rice bread like her, they agreed that they deserved a night off from any form of duty. The group chose a special restaurant in the upper ring which had been built on the site of their previous accommodation—after the Gaang had vacated the house, nobody could be bothered fixing the property, so it had been sold to a wealthy entrepreneur. He had built a restaurant in honour of Team Avatar, named Guójiā, and served food from all the nations. It had become one of the most popular restaurants in Ba Sing Se, reservations having to be made for it several months in advance. It had been rumoured that even the Earth King had left his palace to visit it.
Of course, for the war heroes, getting a seat was no problem at all.
Arriving at the building, they moved their way to the front of the queue, ignoring the cries of indignation. Toph could feel Aang's heart going a million miles; he obviously never cut in line before. He had originally balked at the idea, but after some persuasion from Sokka (and after seeing the size of the line), he had given up, choosing to ignore the little voice in the back of his head. The seven friends entered the packed restaurant, appreciating the homey atmosphere and warmth. Zuko went first, holding the door open for Mai, and then relinquished the wooden frame for Sokka to hold for his pregnant wife. Following behind Aang and Katara, Toph didn't feel the door swing back to its original position, inadvertently hitting her in the face—he hadn't held it open long enough for her to slip inside.
Crying out, Toph stumbled slightly, holding her nose. She could hear the laughs and jeers of the people still waiting in line—they thought it hilarious, karma for pushing in. Face burning, she pushed her way inside, running into Aang as she did so.
"Woah, watch out, Toph," he told her, without the usual joking demeanour. He wasn't even worried, or trying to pretend everything was fine, not when he didn't have to. She growled under her breath—she had thought he would be upset, but this was ridiculous—it had been over two years!
"I would, except I can't see. There are too many people, the vibrations are blurring everything." She gave him a slight nudge. "You're going to have to be my eyes, at least until we get to the table."
She could feel him fidgeting, not wanting to take her hand to lead her. Eventually, she made the decision for him, reaching out and touching his shoulder before moving her hand down his arm to his fingers. Aang still held onto Katara's hand, and he was pulled along by the waterbender as the rest of the group moved further away. Sandwiched between the two benders, he had only taken a few steps before he heard the voices.
"Who does he think he is? Two women?"
"The Avatar ought to have more pride than that."
As though he had been shot with lightning, Aang jerked his hand out of Toph's, whispering in her ear before moving away.
"I can't, people are staring. Just concentrate on my footsteps..."
Toph had no idea where he went; he seemed to have forgotten that he had the lightest footsteps she had ever felt. She couldn't see him, but she could hear him, laughing with Katara at something Sokka had said. Her hearing wasn't as sensitive as it use to be, she couldn't hear what he had said that was so funny. Growling softly under her breath, she marched over to the group, not caring whether she ran into anyone or anything. Luckily for her, or the other patrons of the restaurant, she managed to avoid running into anyone else, although she stubbed her toe on a chair leg. Cursing under her breath, the blind earthbender reached the table as a waiter was giving out menus.
Sitting at the head of the table, Toph gently slid her foot over the smooth stone floor, memorising the seating arrangement. The thrill of seeing her friends after four years had long since worn off, leaving her feeling empty. Really, she had only been happy that day when she was versing Iroh on the Pai Sho battlefield. Her features betraying none of this emotion however, she noted that Aang was on her left, Katara on her right, holding hands over the earth table—the only one in the room; the rest were made of wood. She frowned slightly at this, as she had managed the catch what the seedy waiter had whispered to her. "For the blind girl". She hated him for talking down to her, but everyone else didn't even seem to notice his words. Sokka and Suki sat next to Aang, cooing over the Kyoshi Warrior's stomach, and the Fire Royals sat next to Katara, discussing some matters of the nation. She knew the group was proud of their achievements, both during the war and after it. She knew of their achievements, she had kept an ear out, but she decided that being a good friend meant talking about things that she already knew, or that were boring. This was both. She vaguely wondered if they had kept an ear out for her too. Probably not. Taking a leap, she decided to find a little out about Katara first. Perhaps there was something personal that hadn't found its way to her ears. She knew of Yu Dao, the planned United City, and the repair work that had gone on in the four Air Temples. She knew that the Kyoshi Warriors had taken over the Dai Li, and Sokka and Suki were both advisors to the King. She also knew the Zuko's mother had been located, despite all the secrecy. She knew that Azula was getting better with regular treatments of both herbal remedies, and spending time, for the first time ever, with the woman who had birthed her. She knew all this about her friends, and more. How much did they know about her, though? Not that she would tell them anything, but maybe someone kept an ear out. She couldn't ask directly though, no she would have to question them to see if they question her.
"So, Sweetness. What's been going on for you since the war?"
"Oh, it's been fantastic! We, I mean, Aang and I, we went travelling again. You know Chin village? Its a little town, right near Gaoling, actually. We spent some time there for Avatar Day. It took two years, but a few months ago Aang finally managed to convince them to start cooking their food again! And I went home for a while. I missed Gran-Gran, and dad was heading back there anyway. You know Master Pakku sent waterbenders to the Southern Tribe? I even got to teach a few. of course it was only the basics, but he brought down the really young ones, so they are only at the basic level—they're gonna grow up as Southern Water Tribe members! Even though they're only just starting, they're really good, and there are even some girls! I mean, they aren't as good as Aang when he first started, but they're getting there," she gushed, barely pausing for breath. Toph was about to ask another question, when she was interrupted by the young Airbender.
"Was I really that good?"
"Are you kidding me?! I was jealous of you!"
"But why? You're so amazing at it, I thought-"
After attempting several more times to engage in a conversation, Toph gave up. She decided to focus on the Fire Lords life, curious as to how life as a noble was treating him. And what he thought of it.
"So, Zuko, what's running a nation like?"
"Well, its difficult. I've never had an opportunity to learn this when I was younger, so I'm playing it by ear. Thank goodness no one can argue against me. If I chose, I could make the national colours pink and our emblem a baby koala sheep. I won't, but having the ability is fun." He laughed, and Toph joined in half-heartedly before Zuko continued. "It's also a little scary. What if I screw up? I don't think I could cope some days if Mai weren't here, supporting me." He smiled at his fiancée, who in turn gave him a small kiss that soon turned into something more. Making a show of dry retching, Toph turned back to Aang and Katara with the intention of asking Aang how he was doing, but soon discovered they were playing footsies under the table when one of them (Katara, perhaps) kicked her in the shin. Scowling, she turned to Sokka, who was rubbing Suki's stomach and making cooing noises at it, while the Island Warrior giggled. Sighing, she was about to stand up, when the waiter delivered their food. If the rest of the night was a drag, at least Toph could say that the food was perfect. Picking up her chopsticks, she brought her gourmet dim sum to her noise, smelling the delicate flavour.
"Toph, are you using cutlery? Like... Not using your fingers?" Aang's question surprised her, and she dropped the small object.
"Uh, yeah, I am. I wan-"
"Aang, you have to try this, it's amazing! ... No, it doesn't have meat in it..." Toph was cut off by Katara shoving some form of vegetable into her boyfriends face. Sighing, Toph gave up trying to located the recently dropped dim sum and pushed her plate away. Suddenly, she didn't feel very hungry. She turned her head to listen to the conversations around her. Sokka was talking to Zuko about the difficulty he had faced attempting to get the Dai Li to leave. Apparently, it was because of an agent named Yuhan that they succeeded in bringing in the Kyoshi Warriors in the first place.
"... Didn't agree with Long Feng for a long time. Apparently, but you didn't hear this from me, Long Feng turned the chick he loved into a Joo Dee. I don't know how it ended though... Poor bloke."
Toph opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it. She no longer cared about being part of the conversation; at least, that was the lie she told herself.
Standing from the table (barely increasing her height from sitting), she mumbled something about going to the bathroom. She knew they weren't listening. Making her way slowly out of the horribly packed restaurant, she went out the back and earthbent herself onto the roof, feeling the vibrations of everyone inside. Katara was now sitting on Aang's lap as he fed her food (she nearly gagged at this), while Sokka and Suki were still talking to Mai and Zuko.
Laying on her back, she looked up at the night sky with unseeing eyes, feeling them fill with tears. She stopped bending, stopped feeling the world around her—all that mattered was that she was alone. Although, it had never mattered how many people she was surrounded with, she was still always alone.
For the third time in her life, and the first in two years, Toph let the tears fall down her face.
"Well, that was absolutely fantastic. But the sea prunes could have been a little fresher..."
"Shut up, Sokka, it was cooked perfectly," Katara retorted, hand resting luxuriously on her full stomach.
"Hey, guys?" Aang's voice appeared above the murmurings of dozens of other restaurant goers. Faces turned to his as he gulped guiltily.
"Where did Toph go?"
"She hasn't been gone that long, has she?" Sokka sat up and looked around, before lying back in his chair. "She'll be fine, won't she? This is Toph we're talking about, right? She loves being alone. The packed restaurant probably got on her nerves." He looked relaxed, but he was slightly scared for the younger member of the group. She had been uncharacteristically quiet ever since she arrived. The only words she had spoken to the Water Tribe Warrior was "I found Space Sword." She had refused to give it to him though, laughing a high-pitched laugh that was so unlike her, she told him he had to wait until the end of the week to get it back. Scowling, Sokka forgot all about being worried for her, and focussed on annoyance that she refused to give him his greatest creation, save for the child in his wife's womb.
"Yeah..." Aang was visibly uneasy. He hadn't ever really seen Toph on her own. She seemed so independent and self-assured, but he had a feeling that inside, she was as lost as he had been when he ran away from the Southern Temple. After all, he had never seen her on her own. She was always, always around, even if it was just on the edges of the camp, the group. It was not after the war ended that she was separated from the group. Not that he would display anything, but Aang hoped that at least one other member of their group had written to her, especially after he began ignoring her. He can't have been the only person to stay in contact, could he? Aang pushed her out of his mind when Katara poked him, sending him the smile she reserved only for his eyes.
Dessert came and went, the table filled with tension as they wondered where Toph had gone. No one wanted to be the one to find her, and face her wrath if she were angry, though. Eventually, Aang made an executive decision.
"I'm going to see if I can find her, okay guys? I won't be long." By using his basic seismic sense, only Aang had the slightest chance of locating the bender if she didn't want to be found. Standing up, he made his way to the entrance of the restaurant, already preparing to use his earthbending. He was nowhere near as skilled as his master, but he had a feeling he wouldn't need to search out her heartbeat—he would just need to look for her in a random, obscure place. Stomping his foot, he could feel her strong heartbeats on the roof of the restaurant. Slightly surprised, he airbent himself up, landing gently several feet away from her.
"Go away, Aang." Her voice was horribly small, and Aang was astonished at how different she was. The strange clothes were bad enough, but even her attitude had changed, from loud-mouthed, abrasive, crude Toph, to soft, gentle, nice Toph. She looked so vulnerable, lying there on the roof. It made him wonder exactly what she went through in the last two years that his own stubbornness had stopped him from seeing.
"Why did you leave? We were worried!" Aang asked her, moving towards the still earthbender. She sat up, looking slightly to his left.
"Stop. Right there, stop moving. I don't want to be near you right now."
"Toph, you're the one who came up here, who didn't tell us what's wrong. Generally that means people are hurting more than they let on. You didn't even punch me today for what happened last time we spoke," Aang reasoned, not quite understanding what was happening.
"Maybe I wanted to forget, or forgive or something. Isn't that what you airbenders are always on about? And what's wrong with the clothes, can't a girl wear something that makes her look like a girl? Can't she try something new? Did you think of that? Maybe I'm tired of being rough-around-the-edges Toph. Maybe I want to be likable! Maybe I wanna be like you!!" She was standing up now, her voice getting louder as she became angrier.
"I don't want you to be like me," Aang told her. "I want you to be like you. Like Toph. Why did you change? Tell me what you're feeling..." She snorted derisively.
"How do you think I feel, Aang, being forgotten, being ignored? Sokka and Suki are here, training a new generation of Dai Li, good Dai Li. You and Katara travel the world, sorting out conflict wherever it arises, building cities! And Zuko, good, kind Fire Lord Zuko has brought a ferocious nation down on its humble knees without needing to resort to drastic measures. I haven't had contact with any of you in years. Years! I tried after that fight. I apologised, and begged and pleaded, and you never replied, not once. Eventually, I gave up. What was the point if you didn't want to talk to me? I know what people say about me. 'The avatar's blind teacher, poor thing. He must have found a better one, because he just left her at home. I wonder what became of her, she must hide away shamefully because she hasn't done squat to help people.' Hah, and for all you know, they're right!"
She stood up from her spot on the roof, turning her entire body to face the airbender.
"Zuko invited you, didn't he?" Aang nodded his head numbly, at a loss for words. He had never seen Toph like this. She was mad, angrier than he'd ever seen her.
"Well, he didn't invite me. Neither did you, nor Katara, or Sokka or Suki. It was Iroh, and he only mentioned it in passing. Nice to know what my friendship means to you all!" She was standing on the roof at this point, yelling at him.
"Why do you think I'm so 'dolled up'? Because I don't want you guys to forget me! Well, I didn't forget you. You have no idea what my life has been like. You know, I actually let my father announce that people could court me. I thought that maybe I could at least meet someone new, maybe someone I liked! My dad relaxed a lot when I went home. He actually did want what was best for me; he gave me my freedom. So, I let him announce my availability, and he let me chose. You know how many replies we were 'swamped' with? None! No one wants to carry a pitiful blind girl, even if she is—was—one of the Avatars closest friends, and a master bender." Aang made to move towards her, but she brushed him off.
"Leave me alone, Aang. Go spend time with people you actually want to... Forget me, just like everyone always does."
It was then that Aang realised the underlying issue: she was terrified of being left behind. Now that he thought about it, it made perfect sense. Toph had always strived to become the best earthbender, be the leader in her field. He remembered how jealous she got when he had bent metal for the first time, before smiling and congratulating him. But, the behaviour wasn't limited to her bending. Even when they were travelling, she would always be one of the first awake, as if she were scared she would be left behind. She rarely let all members of the group out of her sight, always hanging around at least one other person. And wherever they traveled, she always made sure to do something that the townspeople would remember her by, even if they didn't discover it until months later. A shudder knocked him from his epiphany, and he looked over to where Toph had been to find she had jumped off the building. Running to the edge of the roof, he saw her just outside the entrance to the restaurant. Frowning slightly, Aang jumped off the roof and landed in front if his old friend.
"Don't walk away from this! You have a problem, tell me! Don't run away, earthbender."
"Maybe that's what I do now. Maybe I run away! What do you know about me, Aang? It's been two years. You don't know me anymore. You know, I kept expecting, kept hoping you would visit. 'We haven't seen Toph in a while, do you think her parents have her trapped again?'. You were in Chin Village, a half day flight from Gaoling. You could have come and seen me!"
"Don't you dare turn this on me, Toph. I know Sokka and Suki invited you to their wedding. I know they did. You could have come, you could have seen us, but no, you couldn't face him being happy, happy with someone who wasn't you."
Toph raised her arms, and suddenly the ground under her feet rose by several inches, bringing her up to his height. She moved her head forward until she was face to face with him, eyes wet with some emotion. Rage? Frustration? Wait... Was she... Crying? Taking several breaths, the girl stopped shaking.
"Shut up, Aang. You don't know what you're talking about. Don't question my motives, you don't even know me anymore," she tried keeping her voice under control; succeeding, it was now a cold fury, burning, cutting through Aang.
"Well, why didn't you come and see us then? Why didn't you leave your parents if you were unhappy?"
"Because I couldn't!" Toph abandoned all attempts to keep her voice under control, yelling at him as though they weren't surrounded by dozens of people wanting to enter the restaurant. "I'm not angry at my parents, I love them. I couldn't leave."
"You couldn't leave your parents, who trapped you for twelve years, to visit your friends. Your friends who you're angry with for not visiting you?!"
Toph raised her hands, clenching them. The ground beneath Aang suddenly dropped away, and he fell into a small hole. Before he could climb out, she knelt on the ground and brought her closed fists to rest next to her chest, closing up the hole and encasing him in the rough earth. She could feel him struggling, attempting to bend himself out, but she just tightened her grip. The earth obeyed her; he had no hope of getting himself out.
Standing up straight again, she glared at him.
"Don't ever—ever—question me, Aang. Not until you know what you're talking about."
Swiftly turning from him, she began to walk away when suddenly she faltered, looking towards the door of the restaurant.
"What are you doing, Toph? Release him, now!" A new voice entered the fray, and Toph took a step back as Katara ran to stand next to Aang's head. Toph gaped at her in surprise. She opened her mouth to answer, when the whispering began.
"Who is that girl?"
"How dare she attack the Avatar?"
"Look, she's blind. That must be why he didn't fight back."
"I thought his original teacher was blind?"
"No, his first teacher was a boy—he wouldn't have a blind girl teach him.
"Oh, he's so considerate! What an ungrateful wretch."
Toph couldn't take it any more. Releasing Aang from the ground, she didn't even bother trying to hide the pain and humiliation on her face as she turned from the scene and ran. She didn't know why she didn't face them; she was an earthbender, she didn't run! All she knew was that she wasn't wanted, by Aang, by her friends, by anyone. For the second time that night, she let the tears fall freely, making her way back to the one place she knew she was accepted.
And so it begins... Mmm, this is far better than any wartime fear. I could get used to a feast like this...
It was the same feeling as all those years ago; he had yelled at her for losing Appa, but he had only just met her—he had no idea who she was. He still didn't know. He wanted to follow her, explain himself, but really there was no reason, no excuse he could give which would be good enough. He was wrong, and he knew it.
"Maybe we should just go to the tea shop," Katara suggested gently. Aang looked at her, and then to the shocked faces of his friends, standing in the doorway. Numbly, he nodded his head.
"You guys heard all that?"
It was Zuko who spoke up this time.
"Not here. Tell us when we get back." He nodded meaningfully at the crowd that had been attracted. Aang looked around before taking Katara's hand, leading her away. He knew the rest of the group would follow.
The walk home was tense, to say the least. Sokka and Suki had no idea what was happening, and Mai wasn't confidant enough about her knowledge of either Toph or Aang to have an opinion. Only Zuko and Katara were talking, small murmurs which failed to reach the ears of the others. Aang had relinquished Katara's hand as soon as they were clear of the crowd, and was walking ahead, trying to clear his mind. Arriving at The Jasmine Dragon, he walked through to the kitchen, motioning for his friends to seat themselves at a table. Finding the green pear tea, he decided against using his bending to prepare it. It always made it taste funny. Sitting on the floor, eyes closed as the water boiled, he heard a small voice in the next room.
"They don't understand... I thought Aang would, at least... I missed them, they won't even listen to me. They forgot me, and moved on."
Aang opened his eyes and lurched forward. Toph must have had her feet off the ground—she didn't know he was listening. Aang wondered who she was taking to, who she would tell her secrets to.
"Have you told them of what has happened to you? Why you were unable to visit them? I noticed at Aang looking at the scar..." Iroh's voice wafted through the door. Aang immediately perked up.
She would talk to Iroh, but not me? And why wouldn't she tell me if something happened, I'm her best friend! He heard a snort as he amended his last thought. Was her best friend...
"I'm sure you saw wrong. He didn't say anything about it to me... Hah, as if he would." The was a moment of silence before she continued.
"You know what the people in town said? They didn't recognise me... They just thought I was a blind nobody, attacking the saviour of the world. I felt them get out of the way for Lady Katara, but to them, I was just a poor little girl who hated the Avatar..."
"You attacked Aang?" Iroh gently prompted her.
"He upset me... I don't hate him or anything. It's just... It's just that Aang was my first friend, and even when I joined the group, he was still my only friend for a while. The rest didn't accept me. They thought I was a stuck up, lazy kid. He never thought so... I don't hate him. I hate myself... I should have visited him, I hold have made more than an effort. And then we had that stupid fight over nothing..." A small sniffle made its way to the young airbenders ears. He realised that he shouldn't be listening, it was wrong. What if he was caught? He made to stand up, when Toph's next words froze him in the spot.
"Sometimes... Sometimes I think that if I had died..." She took a breath. "If I didn't make it, no one would care... And sometimes I think that... Maybe it would be good, to get away from it all..."
Aang couldn't even gasp. "She... She thought we didn't care? She might have-" he refused to think of the rest of the sentence. He couldn't understand how his friend, his teacher, his mentor, his rock, could have changed so much. Sinking back down into the floor, he felt cold, empty. He just wanted to give her a hug and tell her she wasn't worthless. He could hear Iroh begin to reply.
"Toph, you should never think that. You were lucky to survive, the spirits wanted it."
"The spirits wanted me dead in the first place." Toph interrupted him angrily, no trace of the tremor which had plagued her voice from the beginning of the conversation.
"That cannot be true. There are more-" he began to reply before being interrupted by a loud shout.
"Aang! How's the tea coming?" Katara's voice interrupted his eavesdropping, splitting through the air.
No, no, no no no no! Aang looked at the door leading to the employees lounge to find Toph standing there, a look of shock and hurt burning in her eyes, still wet from crying.
Sitting in a tree branch, in a place that both does and doesn't exist, a Spirit licked her lips.
There's just nothing quite like this taste, the taste of loneliness and fear and hatred—and she was still hungry.
A/N: I really, truly believe that that is what Toph is most terrified of. I mean, she did spend the first 12 years of her life completely alone. I don't think her parents spent too much time with her. So, wherever she went, she made sure to create a reputation for herself, be it as the Blind Bandit, or the Runaway, or just plain ol' Toph. She doesn't want to be forgotten.
Oh, yeah! Before I forget, I would love to thank a.fictional.love for being patient and reading this like, 10 times until it was right, and, for letting me use her OC Yuhan Tsen. Well, his name...
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