|More from Fruipit||Tragedy & Spiritual||PG-13||Here||No update page|
30th March, 2013
As it turned out, the zoo was closed for a festival being held in the Lower Ring. Turning away from the Agrarian Zone, Aang allowed Toph to slowly lead him back through the rings to the Jasmine Dragon. He was reluctant to return so soon—Katara would be furious if he returned without having made any progress with patching up his friendship. Becoming more desperate the closer they came to the Upper Ring, he began slowing down. Using his usual goofy need and excitability as an excuse (and the fact that he hadn't seen Toph in anything aside from her long pants and virtually non-existent top), he dragged her to different shops and began looking around at the various trinkets and object. At first she was happy to go along with his seemingly joyful scavenging for cheap deals, but it quickly turned to confusion when she caught on to his methods and the purpose behind them.
"Look, Aang," she managed to blurt out between one of his many bargain hunts. "Stop."
It was the tone she used more than the words themselves that made Aang pause and look back at her at her, fear present in his eyes but not his face.
She walked closer to him until they were barely a foot apart. "I don't know what you're doing, or why. Well, I think you don't want to go to the Jasmine Dragon yet, but I'm not sure of the reason..."
"I just wanna spend time with you!" Aang replied quickly, knowing Toph sensed the half-truth as soon as he said it. Her passive expression shifted into a sneer and she turned away from him abruptly.
"You really have the audacity to lie to me now, Aang? Well, fine." Toph began to walk away when she felt Aang's hand on her shoulder.
"Toph, wait..." he said, removing his hand almost as soon as he touched her, sighing relievedly as she stopped mid-step and turned her head slightly.
"I do wanna spend time with you... I'm just not sure how to act around you anymore... We both changed and I don-" he was cut off as the earthbender placed a clumsy hand over his mouth, missing slightly.
"Well... we could always have a spar?"
Aang looked at her incredulously, before a small smile broke out on his face through her hand.
"We need to go back to the Jasmine Dragon for that, though... People here will stare, and there's something I need from my room..." she added when Aang didn't immediately answer her after she removed her hand.
"Sure, Toph!" he told her, finally finding his voice. Grabbing her hand, he ran from the shop, the young girl trailing haphazardly behind.
The trek which should have taken them almost sixty minutes was achieved in twenty as the two teenagers ran through the three rings of Ba Sing Se and arrived at the tea shop. Walking calmly through the threshold, Aang only noticed he was still holding her hand when it twitched in his, causing him to drop it immediately. He didn't want Katara or Iroh to catch them or get the wrong idea—although neither seemed to be at the tea shop at that moment. It was still fairly early; Iroh didn't generally open for trade until midday at least. If she felt offended at the act, Toph didn't show it as she walked into the kitchen for a glass of water.
"Earthbending only?" Aang asked innocently, already knowing the answer. Toph poked her head around the side of the door, and offered him a genuine smile—one he hadn't seen in over two years. Sure it was small, and somewhat reluctant, but it was still there.
"...Nah. Come at me with everything you've got, see if the almighty Avatar can actually defeat me. Ready?" She smiled confidently and drank the rest of her water.
He nodded, surprised, and walked through the back door into the courtyard knowing that Toph would be following close behind.
Aang was slightly worried—he hadn't really kept up with his earthbending, not since the fight at least. He was still capable—far better than a regular bender, But that was just it; Toph was as far from a regular bender as you could get. The fact that she was confident enough to let him use the other elements was a testament to how much she knew she had grown; while Aang hadn't seen her earthbend how she used to yet, the move she pulled on him the previous night was enough to convince him that she had matured in more than looks and attitude. It seemed as though her style had changed, too. She was a lot more sensitive to vibrations—the episode in the restaurant was proof of that. Never once had she become overwhelmed with the number of people, to the point where she couldn't find her friends.
Looking at her now, stance readying for a fight, Aang knew that she had become more than just sensitive. Her legs were closer together and she was standing in a way that was unfamiliar to him, but it was obvious that she knew what she was doing. Looking at her closer, Aang saw that her centre of gravity was higher than that of a typical earthbender, and it affected how she was balancing.
"How about we up the odds?" she called to him, never wavering as he jumped back in surprise at being addressed.
"What kind of odds?" he asked warily.
"Well, you win, and you choose what we do next. I win, and you have to do what I say. Sound fair?" Toph's face had settled into its usual smirk, inviting Aang to argue with her. Surprisingly, he agreed to the terms immediately.
"Sure. Why not? I hope you're ready!" With that, he struck out with a wave of earthbending, still unsure of attacking her with any other element.
"Come on, Twinkletoes, that was pathetic!" she called out to him, mock disgust on her face, before she turned her attention to the earth tunnelling towards her. Manipulating the rumbling element so it travelled back towards the Avatar, she smiled; Aang mimicked her expression before striking out with his fist, sending plumes of air and dust towards her. He hoped to knock her off balance, trying to take advantage of the strange pose she held. Peering through the dust he couldn't see a trace of his earthbending teacher; she was gone.
"You know, that's the first time you called me Twinkletoes since I arrived!" he called to the empty arena. Taking a step forward, he suddenly found his leg sinking through the ground as his back leg was simultaneously lifted in the air with a pillar. This resulted in Aang being flipped, one leg buried in the ground up to his thigh, his other leg splayed out awkwardly. Suddenly, Toph appeared, shooting up from under the ground before standing above him, grinning. She earthbent him a little lower in the ground, making sure his hands were in the earth to prevent him from earthbending himself out.
"No it isn't. I said it when you first arrived. And just now, remember what I said? You were pathetic, Aang. I told you you can use the other elements, and you still couldn't beat me," she said, disappointment ringing in her tone. She moved to squat on the ground next to him, patting his head and finally smiling. "Did you really think you could beat me?"
Struggling for a moment, Aang quickly realised the futility and stopped, grunting something unintelligible.
"Sorry, what was that?" Toph smirked at him, enjoying herself way too much in the airbender's opinion.
"I said, you win," he conceded tiredly.
"That was easy," she told him, releasing him as she moved away. Aang stood up groggily, moving slowly to let the blood flow back into his recently released limbs. Shaking his legs, he called over to her retreating back warily. "What did you want me to do?"
She turned and smiled, a knowing look in her eyes.
"We're gonna have another fight. Just let me go and get something..."
Watching her enter the tea shop, he couldn't help but wonder what she needed—perhaps getting a blindfold for him? Closing his eyes, he focused his bending into the specialised technique for seismic sense. He had barely used it around people, although he had a fair bit of practise while searching for hidden rooms and shortcuts in the Southern Air Temple; he had needed to in order to sift through much of the debris. It was hard to get a picture clearer than his own heartbeats, so he jumped when he heard Toph calling him from the porch.
"I'm back! Ready?" Aang opened his eyes blearily, and shut them again almost immediately. He had to be seeing things. Opening one eye carefully, he pinched himself to make sure that he wasn't dreaming.
"Toph, is that- is that Sokka's Space Sword?" he asked incredulously.
"Yep. I got it back a few weeks before I turned fourteen. Naturally I would bring it here—although I told Sokka that he couldn't have it back until the end of the week."
"Why are you holding it now?"
Toph flashed him a smile that was all teeth, sending his own on edge.
"Because I'm going to fight with it." At the last word she moved closer, within melee range.
"Don't worry, I've bent the edge so it's quite dull. The worse you'll get is a broken rib."
Aang looked warily at his younger friend. He could see now how her new stance affected her fighting—she would be quicker and lighter, but still able to earthbend effectively; that is, if she chose to. For a reason he couldn't quite place, he didn't think she would want to use her bending to defeat him; she had proven she could, and wanted to try something else. She was standing casually, the sword hanging limply in her left hand, her right on her hip. She was again unconsciously tracing the mark, her small fingers gliding subtly over the tarnished flesh. It was this casual attitude that frightened Aang the most; how she could look at him calmly with a weapon more deadly than his own bending?
Wait... deadly? And her right hand keeps twitching towards her scar... Curious...
"Alright, then, Toph. Same wager as before?" She nodded, the smile never leaving her face—even if it was an empty one.
Taking a step forward, Aang struck first, punching a small fireball towards Toph's left arm. It was barely bigger than a mandarin-pear, but he wasn't sure exactly how strong to make it. He hadn't fought with her in a long time, and never using any other type of bending. She moved a step to the right, not even bothering to hurry out of the way. She felt the heat on her arm—it probably singed a few hairs, but it didn't matter. She knew that the cavalier disregard for her safety would be freaking Aang out.
Moving closer, she lunged with the dull tip of the sword, before flicking her wrist around so the flat of the blade whipped into Aang's side. Or, it would have had he not jumped back in time.
"Hey, watch out!" he cried as Toph stepped closer, bringing the long sword with her.
"Fight properly!" she retorted, swinging the black metal in a tall arc, keeping her balance centred. Aang noticed during a brief respite that she did not keep her feet flat on the ground; rather, it was as though she were dancing on the tips of her toes.
Sliding his right foot along the ground, Aang managed to get the earth underneath Toph to move suddenly to the right. He was positive that she would be unable to keep her balance with such a high stance.
He wasn't counting on her being able to adjust to the movement, especially not without using earthbending.
"How did you do that?" he asked, kicking up a large boulder with his toes and sending it her way not half a second later. Spinning around the rock, Toph stopped as her left side faced Aang and brought the sword up to eye level with uncanny accuracy.
"It's a lot like dancing," was all she offered by way of explanation, mimicking his thoughts from earlier before approaching him faster then he had ever seen her move before. Using his waterbending and firebending stances, Aang had the ability to parry and counter Toph's own attacks—whether he would be able to put her on the defensive was another question entirely.
"How did you get so good?!" he cried out, striking forward with his left arm while dodging a low swing of the sword.
"Practice!" Toph laughed, finally managing to land the first blow—a slap to the side of his leg. Aang hopped on his other leg, kicking out with the one she just hit. He managed to make contact with her chest, knocking her back. The blind swordsman's feet slid across the earth, but to Aang's utter shock and confusion, she was somehow able to keep her balance.
"Was this just something else you felt you needed to master?" he asked her, kicking forward again. This time, he sent a burst of air at her, but she managed to dodge it, twirling around with the sword trailing behind her.
"Of course! I need to be the best. I need to be my best..." she trailed off, her plastic smile finally dropping, giving way to the emotion she had tried to hide.
"What, and you think you aren't?" Aang teased, oblivious to her state. He dragged some water from the air and formed makeshift knives. His voice was light, but the question was serious.
What happened to make you think you aren't the best?
Throwing two of the knives, he managed to graze Toph lightly on her upper arm as she spun out of the way. Instead of a groan of pain, she smiled again. Aang wasn't sure whether this time, it was real or not.
"That's it, Twinkletoes. More ferocious!" she cried out, ignoring the questions both spoken and unspoken.
Please don't make me talk about it...
She gave a hollow laugh before advancing forward once again. Striking out using his waterbending stances, Aang was again surprised at the speed and accuracy with which she managed to block him. It was as though she knew what moves he would make, which in and of itself wasn't surprising; the unexpected part was that she knew how to dodge and counter each move.
Twisting abruptly, she struck out with Sokka's sword, hitting Aang sharply in the ribs before she turned in the opposite direction, clobbering him in his other side with the dull weapon.
Staggering back, he coughed, the action sending pain shooting through his stomach and into his chest. Looking up at Toph, he could see she had become rigid; stiller than a statue. Her eyes wide, the Blind Bandit gave a smile, a perfect balance of glee, and something infinitely darker, before it vanished. Looking at her face, he could see a new emotion playing in her eyes, tugging at the corners of her mouth as though she was fighting herself. Not giving him the chance to study her further, she turned her face down and ran her hand along the blade of the weapon. When she pulled it back, he could see the dull edges had been sharpened.
"Let's make this more interesting, huh?"
He felt the emotion slide off his face. He knew (well, hoped) she didn't want to kill him, but he honestly had no idea where her change in attitude came from. It was as though she was furious at him, even though the anger was unjustified. And a surprise. Until that moment, it had been obvious—or, at least Aang had thought it were obvious—that she was having fun beating him. She didn't need to resort to such dangerous tactics.
"Toph, what are you- woah!" He had begun cautiously, but a swipe to his throat cut him off. Forming fire daggers, he could feel the flames licking the outside edge of his wrists.
"What's your problem?!" he shouted at her, demanding an explanation. She lunged forward again, a fierce grimace on her face. He managed to parry the attack with his own daggers, stepping lightly to the side.
"I don't have a problem," she told him, teeth snapping together viciously. All pretence of a friendly spar flew out the window as soon as she took the dulled edges off the sword, and Aang was determined to find out why.
"Obviously you do, or you wouldn't have cried into my shirt last night!"
He realised, almost too late, that it was probably not the wisest thing to say. Doubling her efforts, although it seemed not to be from anger at his words, Toph began to strike out seemingly at random. She flew through the air gracefully, the sword a dark blur as she waved it through the air. She was in a frenzy, attacking him with an almost desperate motive. Even the master airbender was unable to avoid some of the swings, receiving cuts and nicks on his forearms and shins.
"Why are you so desperate to hurt me?!" he cried out, forming an air scooter on which he could retreat to a safe distance. As though she knew his intentions (and he didn't know that she didn't), Toph swung the sword in a horizontal arc, catching the palm of Aang's hand with the sharpened tip. Crying out, he fell to the ground, clutching the bleeding extremity.
Standing over him, she pointed Sokka's weapon at him. The Air Nomad looked up at her, shock and horror playing on his face. Once again, she smiled the same evil grin before it slid off her face, and she collapsed on the ground, throwing the sword away sharply; it clattered noisily to the stone floor, a mere ornament once again. He could hear her panting as she became once again the lost girl he knew ten minutes ago.
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry... pl- please don't be mad..." She was pleading, muttering under her breath; there was a slight tremor in her voice, her eyes blinking rapidly through the thick hair. Grabbing the hem of her long pants, she ripped a piece off and began wrapping his hand. It would need to be cleaned and healed properly by Katara when she arrived, but for the time being it was serving its purpose of stopping the bleeding.
"Wh- ...Toph?" he asked again, ignoring the congealing blood. "What was that?! Did you just fight me so you could hurt me?!"
"N-no... I don- You b- broke your promise... t- to me..." The tears had leaked over her face, marking clear trails through the grime on her cheeks. "I n- needed you..."
Promise? What promise? He wasn't sure what she was talking about, but knew better than to ask. He had the memory, he just couldn't see it. Perhaps if he...
Looking through her dark hair, Aang found Toph's wet eyes searching, imploring that he understand and remember. She had quickly realised he had forgotten, and was giving him the chance to redeem himself. He had to remember, he had... Oh... Within the light green orbs he could see the truth, what he had promised and failed to do...
The sun had risen over the small town of Gaoling, only to realise it had been beaten by a chirpy Air Nomad and a loud-mouthed earthbender. The two had but a few scant hours in which to relish each others company before said Nomad had to leave, returning once again to help the world after a short week of ignoring all but the small girl he had tasked himself with returning home. A small girl who then blackmailed him into staying to help deal with 'the demon gatekeepers of this hellish prison'. Surprisingly, she didn't seem to want to leave again, declining his invitation to travel again.
"I've trained the Avatar. I've helped him overthrow a vicious dictator and saved my country. Now my hardest challenge—facing my parents. It'll be fun, and if not, I can always run away again."
Aang smiled at that, before telling her of his facial expression—a strange habit the two had picked up in the closing moments of the War. She punched him lightly on the arm as they approached Appa, her own way of saying goodbye. Aang pulled her into a tight hug; his own farewell.
"Keep in touch, okay? I'll find a way to write to you, just make sure you respond, alright Twinkletoes?"
"I promise, as the Avatar, that I wi-"
"No." Toph put her hand over Aang's mouth, looking blindly over his right shoulder. "I don't want an Avatar promise. I want an Aang promise."
Aang smiled again, knowing that she could feel it, before nodding. Toph removed her hand, giving him room to speak.
"I give you an Aang promise that I won't forget to write. We'll see each other soon anyway." He shrugged, but he knew that the simple promise meant more to Toph than she would say—his suspicions were confirmed when she stepped up close to him and threw her arms around him of her own accord.
"I'll remember that, Aang..." she whispered before relinquishing her grip to look at him, her blind eyes moving as though searching for his.
Standing up, Aang gently took Toph's hand and lead her into the shade of a cherry blossom tree.
"You'll burn out there, the sun's past it's peak," he told her, wiping a stray tear from her cheek. Sitting with his back against the tree, he pulled the young girl down to sit next to him. She stiffened slightly before sinking low into the ground, resting her head on Aang's shoulder.
"I keep screwing up, don't I?" he whispered in her ear, eliciting a watery laugh from the earthbender.
"We both do... I wanna forget about what happened, but I can't... I didn't mean to hurt you. I don't know what happened," she mumbled softly. "I don't hate you, Aang..."
I forgive you...
Putting his arm around her shoulder, Aang hugged her close. Neither said anything—there was nothing to say. He didn't know what happened, but he didn't mind. She had forgiven him, that was all that mattered—he could live with an injury, because her heart had been healed.
Slowly, he became aware of an idea, tugging at his mind. Well, a question, really. He didn't want to ruin the peace that they had achieved, but it soon became too urgent for him to ignore.
"Toph?" he asked gently, squeezing her shoulder slightly.
"Hmm?" she purred, sending gentle vibrations through his shoulder and to his chest.
"If I ask a question, will you answer it?" he queried in a gentle undertone. Suddenly, he felt her heartbeat skyrocket, and she seemed to petrify. Looking down at her, he could see her eyes had become wide, and she was breathing in short, shallow gasps.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to..." He couldn't just ask 'what happened'. That would be rude and insensitive, as though he only cared for her now that he felt guilty for leaving. But, perhaps he could find out something, just something small.
Making a small noise, something stuck between a growl and a whimper, Toph nodded. Looking down at the bloodied hand in his lap, Aang opened his mouth before closing it again.
What could he ask?
He could ask what she has been up to, or whether she managed to teach someone metalbending. He could ask her to teach him? Or, perhaps she has a boyfriend? Did she keep in touch with anyone else, or how her sixteenth birthday was...
"You gonna ask a question, Twinkles?" she grunted into his shoulder, nudging him slightly.
"Where did you find Sokka's sword?" he questioned in a small voice. Sokka's sword; it was probably the safest subject he could talk about.
Looking down at Toph, he could see a strange expression on her face. He couldn't place it, though. She had kept her features blank, but had she been smiling it would have appeared a grimace. If she were frowning, a snarl.
"It was given to me..." she told him. He could see that there was more to the story—a lot more—however her tone stopped him from asking another question.
"You're really good at it... I think I'd have to enter the Avatar State to beat you!" he exclaimed, evoking another smile from his friend.
"Gimme a week, I'll straighten you out."
The two friends fell into a companionable silence, broken only by birdsong and the gentle noises of tea pots and glasses clinking together.
Iroh must have opened up the shop, Aang surmised, listening to the gentle breathing of Toph and the hubbub of conversation as he fell into sleep in the warm sun.
That... didn't go as planned...
He woke lying on his back on the ground, goosebumps running up the right side of his body; his left was surprisingly warm. Keeping his eyes closed, he snuggled in closer to the warm thing, burying his face it its long hair. Slowly his sleepy mind connected the situation he found himself in with what had occurred before the nap, and he had to actively stop himself from jumping away as he opened his eyes. Using the still-bright-but-setting sun, he realised that he probably couldn't have jumped away no matter how much he squirmed.
Most of Toph's hair had fallen free of her bun, and she was breathing gently into his chest. Her left arm had been draped over his stomach, and her right was under her own belly, latched onto one of his hands with much more strength than he thought possible for the sleeping girl.
Reaching his free hand over, Aang brushed Toph's ebony bangs from her face, smiling slightly to himself. He couldn't believe how thick her hair had become. Even as he moved it to the side, he could see something was off. Her skin had appeared her normal colour when he first saw her the day before, but getting a closer look at her he could see how pale she looked—almost as though she were battling a constant bout of nausea. Her breathing was surprisingly shallow, and Aang could see dark circles under her eyes. The bruised colour shocked Aang—how had he not noticed earlier? Gently running his thumbs over them, he withdrew as she nestled closer into his chest, murmuring something.
"Toph?" Aang asked gently, running his hands through her fringe.
"Mmfphm... Tashi... five more minutes..." she groaned quietly. Aang's eyes widened, and a small crease appeared between them.
"Toph? Come on, we have to get up..."
Opening her eyes slowly, brain foggy, Toph shook her head to remove the lingering traces of sleep.
"Wha- Ta- Aang?" She squinted her eyes as though it would help her see.
"Yeah... we fell asleep. I should probably get Katara to look at my hand..." He trailed off, for some reason unwilling to look at her. Swaying slightly, she sat up, giving Aang room to move.
"I wonder why no-one woke us up earlier...?"
"I don't know," Aang replied, standing up. Offering Toph his hand, he dragged her to her feet; he stumbled slightly when he overestimated how much she weighed.
They walked back into the tea shop, this time hands kept separate; Toph first stopped to pick up the sword, holding it again like a natural.
"I'm really sorry about that, Aang," she said as they walked up the stairs, her voice small.
"Don't worry about it... Katara should be able to heal it..." Looking down, he could see the rag had dried on his hand, becoming stuck in the wound.
Walking through the kitchen, the duo found Katara sipping tea with Zuko and Mai—Sokka and Suki where nowhere to be seen.
"Where's Sokka?" the earthbender asked.
"Aang, Toph! He's at the doctors with Suki," Katara called to them, waving to one of the waiters to collect more tea cups. "We saw you outside but we didn't want to wake- what happened?!" Katara stopped suddenly, noticing the rag around Aang's hand.
"That was my fault. I got a bit excited," Toph told her, lifting the sword up. Aang looked at the young girl, who had even managed to pull off a sheepish smile. Katara unwrapped the soggy rag, gasping as it pulled free from the ripped skin.
"It's just a small cut, it wasn't her fault!" Aang cried out when he saw his girlfriends' face. Toph had forgiven him for abandoning her, the least he could do was make sure she wouldn't get into trouble. Not that she couldn't protect herself—she had definitely proved that she was more than capable. "I got careless, it was just an accident," he added, shrugging noncommittally as Katara used the water in her tea to heal it. Zuko looked absolutely horrified, and even Mai had a slight expression of disgust on her face. Looking down, Aang could see why.
The skin of his palm had ripped off when Katara removed the rag, giving it room to begin bleeding again. Watery blood began to ooze, and a strange liquid appeared on the edges, like tree sap around a broken branch. The strangest thing was that he hadn't felt it at all—even now, he had very little feeling, the water barely discernible on his torn palm.
"This is dreadful, Aang, I didn't think you were so reckless as to fight with a sharpened sword." She glared at Toph as she said this. The earthbender suddenly became very interested in her own feet and mumbled something under her breath. Katara looked back at Aang.
"Why didn't you come to see me sooner? I could have helped," she looked at him with sad eyes. "It's going to scar, there's nothing I can do about it. Just make sure to keep moving it so the muscles heal properly..." Removing the healing water, Aang could see that the skin had reconnected, although it was still very red and blistery. Looking around, he could see that Zuko was the only person who seemed unfazed about his hand—even Mai was looking a little ill. Toph was nowhere to be seen.
"Where did Toph go?" he asked.
"I think she went to the kitchen..." Zuko told him, taking a sip of tea.
Looking towards the door, Aang couldn't see a trace of the earthbending prodigy at all.
"We noticed you sleeping outside." Zuko spoke directly to Aang as he downed the last of his tea. "Has she forgiven you?" he added calmly, looking pointedly at the young monk. Aang looked at Katara, who had a defiant expression on her face.
"Hey, they're our friends, and they needed to know, too." She shrugged her shoulders, completely oblivious to her boyfriends' horrified expression.
Slumping in a chair, Aang took a deep breath.
"She- I mean, I think she forgives me. At the very least, she's willing to forget... I thought she'd hold a grudge for a lot longer..."
Aang looked up to Katara's smiling face. For the corner of his eye he could see Zuko give an approving nod, with Mai smiling so very slightly.
"Is that all?" Katara prompted, looking pointedly at Aang's hand. He followed her gaze, before looking away guiltily.
"It was an accident. She didn't do it." He spoke with honest sincerity, but Aang couldn't keep the confusion and disbelief of his own words from his voice.
"Look," he focused on each of his friends in turn. "She did use the sword, but I don't think she wanted to hurt me. It was... weird. She just wanted to beat me, she dulled the edge before we started! But then she got really angry for some reason."
Zuko had leaned back in his chair, just listening to Aang explain. Katara looked worried, and Mai (as usual) appeared bored. Only the slight frown of her mouth showed she thought something was wrong.
"I just-" Katara broke the heavy silence, her voice small and uneasy. "I don't want you to get hurt again. If the sword went through you, I don't even know how much I could help... the damage it could do to your insides... Do you think it will happen again?"
"It doesn't matter." Zuko interrupted her before Aang could answer the question. The Fire Lord saw the confused expressions and felt the need to elaborate. "I mean, when Sokka finds out that Toph is capable of using it, and dangerous, he won't let her keep it. He's been searching for four years—and I know that she refused to give it to him until the end of the week. I was there when she announced it to him. He will rip it from her if he has to..."
The four friends sat in silence, absorbing everything that Zuko had said. It was true that Sokka would trade his last piece of meat for that sword, and now that they realised how terrifying Toph really could be now that she had mastered fighting without bending, he would be scared that her temper would get the better of her—as it had done that day. He had a wife and child to protect, and if anything happened to them because of her, he would never forgive himself or anyone else.
"... I don't think she will have a problem giving it back," Aang announced suddenly. "All she wanted to prove was that she's stronger than we think. She defeated me with a sword when I could use all my bending. But you're right, even if she doesn't want to, we have to make her give it back. I'm- I'm scared of her. She's like my sister, and I'm terrified that she might hurt me, and I know I shouldn't be but I can't help it..." Sucking in a deep breath, he let it out as a low sigh.
"Look, we'll talk to her when she comes back. I know she wouldn't want to hurt you purposely," Zuko piped up. "She would have done so last night if that were the case."
"I just- I'm worried about her. There's so much she's not telling us. Maybe you could talk to her, Zuko? Or at least Iroh? He knows what's going on..."
Aang looked at Zuko, who offered a sharp nod.
"I'll do it."
They sat in silence for a few moments more, before Aang spoke up again.
"Hey Zuko? Can- can you ask her something?"
The scarred ruler looked at the Avatar curiously as he lowered his head, talking in a small, almost ashamed voice.
"Can you ask her who Tashi is?"
"- And we could put a fire in the fireplace and sleep in the main room. I can pack up all the tables and stuff, and set it up tomorrow. I just thought it would be... nice..."
"Of course, Toph! This is as much your home as it is mine," Iroh told her jubilantly. Her awkward half-smile turned into a full-fledged beam, and she moved forward to wrap her hands around the wizened old man.
"It isn't. It's your home, Iroh..."
He pulled away, only to kneel in front of her.
"Toph," he began, holding her upper arms and looking into her now blank face. "I know you feel as though you are intruding sometimes, but understand that you have brought a little light into the life of a lonely, old man." He smiled a little as he noticed her own mouth curl upwards slightly at the corners.
"This is as much a home to me as it is to you, and as long as you treat it as your own, there are no reasons to ask you to leave." Pulling her into a tight hug, he quickly released her and moved away.
"Now, go and tell your friends!" He shooed, smiling happily at Toph's excitement.
The blind girl ran towards the table she could feel her friends sitting at. They had been discussing something heavy—the heartbeats never lie—but she was too distracted to think much of it.
Looking towards the door, Aang could see Toph's bobbing head making its way towards them with a wide grin.
"I just spoke to Iroh... If you want, we can all stay here tonight. I mean, clear the tables away and light a fire in the fireplace and sleep in our sleeping bags if you want and-"
"That would be nice," Zuko said, piping up to cease her rambling. Aang noticed how her expression brightened from the slightly panicky one she held only moments before.
"Just like old times, Katara?" he asked, knowing that the waterbender would agree if he asked her to. Nodding, she smiled at the earthbender.
"Just like old times, Toph," she told the young girl, entirely unprepared for her reaction. Expecting a smirk of a person who had received what they wanted, it was a surprise when Toph moved forward and voluntarily hugged each of them in turn, positively beaming.
"I'll go tell Sokka!" she chirped happily, practically running from the tea shop in order to get to his hotel faster.
As the friends looked through the entrance to the tea shop, slightly dazed at the turn of events, a collective thought rustled through their minds.
It's going to be a good night...
Iroh watched from the kitchen as the four children—no, not children; teenagers—raced around collecting the items they would need for the night (and delivering tea to customers if they passed by a specific table). He had hoped that she would want to spend time with them, open herself up a little.
He knew that sooner or later, one of them—probably Aang or Katara—would convince her to talk of herself and how she had changed. He hoped that they were ready for the answer. He hadn't been.
Watching them prepare for the night, it was obvious that each carried their own conflicted feelings of the situation. Aang was flitting about, trying to be helpful and generally just getting in the way. Katara had defaulted into "mommy mode", ready to help Toph overcome her issues. Taking a long drink of spiced hibiscus tea, Iroh doubted that there was a lot the waterbender could do to help. He knew everything that had happened to the young girl, and sometimes a person needed more than just the healing touch of a waterbender, or a good pot of tea. Zuko moved with the purpose and stoicism that dictated years of practise, but he never stayed completely focused on one task—it was Mai's job to make sure the protective-big-brother feelings he had wouldn't cloud actions or judgement.
Looking at the darkened sky, he put his tea pot in the sink and rang a bell that had been placed near the register.
"I apologise, but we are closing early tonight—no, no! Finish your tea, by all means. The shop has merely been... rented out for the night." He winked at Zuko, who gave a small smile.
It's going to be a good night...
Running through the spacious suburb, Toph almost ran into the person she was looking for, only just managing to stop herself before she bowled him over.
"Sokka!" she cried, the glee evident in her voice.
"Toph!" he mimicked with much less enthusiasm. He glanced at Suki, who wore the same confused face as him.
"Come on, everyone's staying at the Jasmine Dragon tonight!" She grabbed the couples' hands and dragged them along, Suki on her left and Sokka on her right. The two older people struggled to keep up with Toph and her exuberant attitude.
"We were planning on celeb-" Sokka began to talk but was quickly shushed by his wife.
"What do you mean, Toph?" Suki spoke up after sending a menacing glare at her husband, stepping lightly over a small hole in the ground.
"Come on," the diminutive girl said, pulling a little harder. She had obviously missed whatever it was Sokka had been about to say; intent on dragging the couple back to the tea shop, she even stumbled several times over the uneven ground.
"Toph, what are we-" Sokka began, before he was interrupted once again.
"I said, everyone is staying at the Jasmine Dragon tonight."
Suki finally managed to stop having her arm ripped from the socket as she caught up to the energetic blind girl. Looking at Toph, the Kyoshi Warrior raised an eyebrow at her giant grin.
"Why?" Sokka interjected, still trailing hopelessly behind.
"Coz I asked, and Iroh said yes. Now, shut up and keep walking."
Sokka jogged slightly to catch up, looking as confused as his wife. Toph only grinned harder.
It's going to be a good night...
All together once again. Your family—everything you dreamed of, no? It's easy, so, so easy for dreams to become nightmares; you remember, don't you Toph? I heard you today, murmuring his name...
The Bird Spirit flapped her wings sharply, the black plumes swirling around her menacingly. The feminine features of her face pulled back into a mutated smile, the teeth of ravenous wolves clicking together sharply.
Time to relive the terror, I think.
She let out a fiendish giggle, a warped sound that held no place on her smooth lips and in her sharp eyes.
It's going to be a good night...
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