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2nd January, 2013
Aang was dozing off. Politics were bad enough, but to be stuck inside all day with four old geezers was positively torture. He knew he had a duty to help lead Republic City, but when the issues of gang wars turned to cabbage imports, he couldn't help but begin to daydream. He found his mind wandering to Katara, who was at Kyoshi Island helping her brother and Suki deliver their third child, then to Zuko, who had recently sent him a letter that Fire Lady Mai was expecting, and that he would be honoured if the Avatar showed up to the naming ceremony a few months after the birth. Inevitably, as always happened in the longer, more boring meetings, Aang finally found his thoughts wandering where he definitely didn't want them to—Toph.
To say he was worried about her was an understatement. He hadn't seen her in over 3 months—surprising, since they were both on the Council—but he had still tried to visit her often. Every time he came over, the maid, Chihiro would send him away. The most recent venture into her home resulted in Chihiro demanding he leave, before begging him to help. Unfortunately, Toph overheard, and banned Aang from coming over. It wouldn't normally be a problem, but he was scared around the new Toph. Scared of her, and for her. She wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep. Her friends had known that something was wrong for a while—the usually loud and obnoxious earthbender had become more and more withdrawn, her antisocial behaviour extending from weeks to months—but it was only at that moment that Aang realised how terrible things had become. This was over two weeks ago. At first, her behaviour could have been rationalised. She was angry, focussed, her temper was short. So, nothing new, really. But these changes quickly progressed to something worse. She was always angry, the sarcastic humour replaced by mean words and criticisms. It was at this time that Toph decided to take a leave of absence from the police force, citing personal reasons. Her colleagues would be lying if they did not say they were too upset about her leaving. Then, she shut herself away at home, dismissing most of the staff. She had kept one lady, Chihiro, to clean and fetch groceries. Aang felt terrible that she didn't want to tell him what was wrong, and he was upset that he hadn't had the time to visit her. Aside from Toph, he was the only one currently in Republic City.
In the twelve years he had known the earthbender, she had never hidden herself from anyone. Even when her father passed, Toph had carried herself proudly, refusing to show weakness. When her mother died, Toph remained as stoic as ever, returning to work a mere three days after the funeral. But this, this was different.
Looking around the Council Chambers, Aang was unsurprised that she hadn't shown up to the meeting. Gang wars had begun to spike, the five-and-a-half months that the Chief of Police had been off was more than enough time to try and extend gang territory. He sighed as the delegates for the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom began debating import taxes. Aang stood up, gently clearing his throat. While it wasn't necessary for him to be there, he preferred to sit in the meetings so he could learn what was happening around the world—with Republic City still in its infancy, he couldn't travel as far or for as long as he used to.
"I apologise for interrupting, Council Members," he said sagely. "I feel my presence is not needed at this meeting any longer." The Council started, forgetting that the 24 year old had been sitting in the meeting.
"Well, the Chief's is! You can go and get her, now you have free time," the rather obnoxious ambassador for the Southern Water Tribe more or less commanded. Aang didn't feel like arguing that day—and he had every intention of finding out what was wrong with his friend.
"Good idea, Ambassador Kinoko. I will do that, and failing a return, I will ask her opinion on the matter," bowing slightly, he left the hall, already planning what he was going to say to Toph that would make her listen.
Lying in bed, Toph had absolutely no motivation to leave it. She knew she was being stupid, she knew she was worrying her friends, but she didn't care. She didn't care about them, and she didn't care about herself.
"Chihiro!" She called to her maid, the one person who had seen her in the five months of her leave.
"Yes, Toph?" In the first weeks of her employ, Chihiro learnt—painfully—that Toph did not like to be called "master", "madam", "lady" or any other honorifics that her position would generally grant her. If she were in an especially good mood, Chihiro could get away with calling her "chief"—that hadn't happened for quite some time.
"I want you to go out today. Have... fun. Do something. There's some money..." Toph racked her foggy brain; she couldn't for the life of her remember where she put the little jar of ever-dwindling funds.
"The money has been put in a jar above the pantry, Toph," Chihiro told her gently. "If you're sure you will be fine, I'll take my leave. I don't need any of the money." With a slight bow at her employer, Chihiro left Toph. Not that she liked doing it, but it would be worse if she stayed. Toph's independent nature occasionally shone through the crippling depression, and when that happened Chihiro knew that, for at least the day, the blind woman would be okay.
"I'll call back later," the maid promised. Toph barely acknowledged what she had said. Hearing the front door close, Toph summoned just enough willpower to roll off the bed and onto the floor, landing on her back. Being close to her element gave her a little more strength, and she managed to stand up. Chihiro had done a good job keeping the house clean, and Toph rarely left her bed. Walking into the small bathroom, she considered putting her hair up, but couldn't find the energy. She couldn't see herself, why should she care? It's not like she was going anywhere, and no-one was coming here. Sighing, she left the bathroom, barely a voiding walls and furniture as she attempted to navigate the large, empty house, not concentrating enough to see. As she walked through the foyer, she heard a light tap on the door.
"Chihiro? It's Aang, could I come in?" Toph stopped short, and turned to face the door. She was in no mood to entertain—she wasn't in any mood at all. She felt like a big empty shell. Walking to the door, she opened it slightly, peering her head around the frame.
"Chih-" the name was lost on his tongue as she heard a sharp intake of breath.
Aang was prepared to be told to turn away. Chihiro had never let him in, and probably wouldn't again. But he still had to try. Walking up to the door, he gently tapped on the door.
"Chihiro?" he could hear someone on the other side of the door. Maybe today was his day?
"It's Aang, could I come in?" The maid moved towards the door, opening it slowly. It really was his day!
"Chih-" he gasped. It wasn't the kind-natured maid who answered the door, but Toph herself. At least, he thought it was Toph. He could only see her face, and was shocked at the difference between the last time he saw her. Her round face had become sunken and sallow, her light green eyes which once upon a time was filled with light, were now harsh and cold. Even her hair had lost its shine, becoming limp and unkempt.
"Toph..." he couldn't think of anything to say.
"What?" she wasn't grumpy or angry or upset with him. She wasn't... anything. All Aang could hear was how hollow his boisterous friend had become.
"Are you... okay?" He mentally shook himself. Of course she wasn't okay! Looking at her again, he noticed how withered she appeared.
"I'm fine. What business is it of yours anyway?" Perhaps if she had sneered, Aang would be more willing to leave her alone. As it was, she hadn't made a move to close the door, her head still poking from behind the wooden frame.
"Toph! We care about you, we're worried! The gaang misses you, I miss you. I miss talking to you. I don't know what's wrong, but something is. I want to help." He made to open the door a little wider, but an obstruction behind the door stopped him.
"I don't need your help. Despite what everyone thinks, I'm not helpless, O Great and Powerful Avatar," this time she did sneer at him, but the expression was quickly wiped as she took a small gasp of breath, her face rapidly changing to a sickly green colour. Without another word, she slammed the door in the airbenders face, covering her mouth with her other hand.
"Toph? Toph!" Pushing the door open, he followed the sickening sound of someone losing their lunch.
"Toph! What's wrong?! You can't say 'nothing' now."
She had her back to the door, and was kneeling in front of the toilet. He made to move towards her, but thought better of it, instead sitting at the entrance. He wouldn't force himself on her—she didn't even want him here. Instead, he would wait until she wanted to talk. When she finally stopped being sick, he expected her to turn to him, and demand he leave. To his shock, she didn't move, not even gesturing him to leave.
"Go away, Aang. I don't want to see you. I don't need your help. I don't want it, I'm fine on my own. I have been for the past 5 months," she took in several deep gasps, trying to calm her upset stomach.
"No, you aren't! Toph, I get that you like your independence, but this isn't about that. You can still be independent, and let the people who love you... you can let them help you." Toph angled her head slightly, a lean to the left, partially facing the wall so Aang could see a fragment of her face.
"You can't help me. No-one can, I tried," even if he hadn't been focussing on what she was saying, it was impossible for Aang to miss the note of sadness, of defeat in her voice.
"Toph, will you please look at me? I won't judge you, nor laugh, no matter what has happened, okay?" Toph shift slightly where she was kneeling. Her back was still facing Aang, but he could now see the majority of her face. She sniffled slightly.
"Promise? Promise you won't judge me, or laugh or..." she trailed off mumbling the last part of her request under her breath.
"Pardon?" Aang requested gently.
"Don't... don't leave me..." He could see the tears rolling freely down her face.
"Toph, I would never! Can you please tell me what's wrong? Even if I can't help you, I can still support you."
She nodded slightly, her eyes resting shut as if blocking out the world. "Just close your eyes. Please."
Despite his now burning curiosity, he felt there was nothing wrong with complying with her request. Shutting his eyes, he waited patiently until Toph told him he could open them again. He could hear her moving, but was unsure what she was doing. Suddenly, Toph's arms were around his, hugging him tightly—although she felt weaker than he remembered. Sitting on the floor, he could feel her torso against his as he hugged her back. Opening his eyes, he looked down at the blind girl, who seemed so fragile in his arms. Her skin had lost its clammy look, and her eyes no longer seemed so dead. He wiped the tears from her face as his eyes continued looking at her. She was heavier than he remembered—she must have put on a lot of weight; why was her face so thin? And her arms so spindly? Oh, god...
"Toph, are you—are you..." he couldn't finish the thought and she silently nodded, tears cascading down her cheeks.
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