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31st May, 2013
noun [sing. tattoo]
1. [an] evening drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters
2. a mark on one's person
Watching the lively display of troops, Aang smiled and turned his gaze on his friends. It had been barely a year since he woke up from the iceberg, but surrounded by the happy faces of the people he had essentially grown up with he felt as though he had known them for a lifetime. He wasn't that goofy kid anymore. He felt as though he had aged ten years instead of one, but he also felt freer than ever. There was no war pressing down on his shoulders. The world, while still scarred and injured, needed time to heal. He couldn't force it.
It had been several months since the official end of the war, however it was only in the last week or so that all fighting had ceased. Still, there were scuffles amongst small groups, mostly defected Fire Nation soldiers and bitter Earth Kingdom citizens; Aang, luckily, was able to quash these rebellions without much difficulty. Zuko had managed to recall all the soldiers who were still loyal to him, a surprisingly large number. It had been the Kyoshi Warrior who had suggested that they too were sick of the fighting.
To commemorate the event, Fire Lord Zuko had set up a military march; he was formally disbanding the Fire Nation Army. Instead, a special Defence Force would be set up to protect the country from civil unrest—something unlikely, but possible.
The show today was meant to be a celebration of the military, and as such was held in Caldera City. All the Fire Nation citizens were welcome to attend, and the invitation had been extended to the Kings of the Earth Kingdom and the Tribal Chiefs, as well as those important to the War movement. Almost everyone who had been at Zuko's coronation had decided to attend.
"This is amazing!" Sokka cried, bringing Aang out of his memories as the Avatar looked back at the impressive display. Scores of soldiers had lined up, standing at ease as they too watched the dressage ostrich-horse performance. Even Katara looked impressed with the skill and fluidity of the cavalrymen. Surrounded by war, it was hard to remember that the military wasn't all blood and violence; it was about fostering a sense of unity within a group of people.
The performance ended as a warm breeze wound its way through the field. Aang applauded, along with the rest of his friends, save for one; Toph stood up abruptly, her light dress swaying slightly in the wind as she walked away from the stands. A dark look Aang had never seen on her pretty features clouded her face as she pushed past him. He looked around at Katara and Sokka, but both had their eyes still trained on the soldiers, who had begun moving in a peculiar formation that he didn't quite understand the purpose of.
Turning around, he quietly stole through the crowd of soldiers who were standing at attention. Being an important guest of the Fire Nation, Aang and his friends had been regaled with a seat of honour, high on a podium overlooking the display. Katara and Zuko would probably berate him for leaving halfway through, but he could always blame it on Toph. Speaking of which, he couldn't see any sign of the blind earthbender. Peering at the guards, he noticed one fidgeting. Only a little, but enough.
"You there!" he said as he walked up to him. "Did you see a young woman come through here?"
"Aye, Avatar!" The deep voice of the guard echoed around in the helmet, and Aang vaguely wondered how he could speak without giving himself a headache.
"Where did she go?"
"Towards the palace, sir," came the reply. Aang frowned slightly—what business would she have in the palace?
"Avatar, sir!" the guard said, still in the same hushed tone. Aang looked up at him, eyes wide.
"I thought you should know, sir, that she seemed upset." With that, the guard stood at attention once again, leaving Aang to ponder. Why would she be upset?
Turning away from the crowd, which had begun cheering again, he walked serenely to the palace. Usually, an upset Toph was an angry Toph, and an angry Toph was far more capable of riling him up than a calm Toph. Taking some deep breaths, he was—away from the crowd—able to locate her on the first floor. Save for a few servants lounging in their quarters, and guards protecting the entrances, the palace was empty. Well, empty but for himself and the earthbender. Opening his staff, Aang jumped into the air and carefully glided to one of the windows. Landing on the wooden ledge, he almost fell off it as he heard... crying? Well, not exactly crying, but sniffling. And there was someone blowing her nose. It couldn't be anyone but Toph, so he closed his glider and carefully tiptoed along the hall until he came to a closed door. Putting his ear against the wood, he knew that this was the room she was in.
Pushing it open slowly, the first thing he noticed was how bright it was. The afternoon sun streamed into the room through the open window and assaulted his retinas, unused to such a bright room after the dark red hallway. The second thing was Toph, sitting on the window-seat and dabbing her face with a handkerchief. The third was that the entire room, including the floor, was made of wood.
"Toph?" he asked, unsure and wary. She jerked her head at the sound of his voice, but quickly lowered it until her hair was covering her eyes. Too late, however, as he had already seen the red rims. Even now as she tried to hide from him, he could see tears still marking polka dots on her sleeves.
"What do you want, Aang?" she asked, her voice low and husky, as though she needed to cough.
"I... I saw you leave and wondered if you were okay..." he said quietly, making his way towards her. Pulling his own cotton square from his sleeve, Aang sat in front of her and took her hand.
"What's wrong? You can talk to me, you know..." he told her. She didn't try to pull away as he began using his clean piece of cotton to gently wipe her face, trying hard not to smudge the already runny makeup that Katara had lightly dusted over her face.
"I just-" she stopped and sniffled, throwing her head back as she tried to hold back the water in her eyes. "This is wrong, Aang."
"What is?" he mumbled, dabbing at the corners of her useless eyes.
"This, today, the whole thing! We should- we shouldn't be celebrating the war, or the army!"
"But," Aang looked at her, confused, "we aren't celebrating it. We're celebrating the end of the Fire Nation Army. Commemorating it. I don't understand."
She snorted at this and let out a humourless laugh. "I knew you wouldn't understand."
Bending the fluids out of the two handkerchiefs, Aang frowned again.
"Explain it to me then."
"Ugh, fine. You wanna know why I'm so upset? It's because people fought- people died in this war, but people seem to have forgotten all about that when there is a nice ostrich-horse show on!" she cried, her arms almost hitting Aang as she swung them around in fury.
"Toph... that's not- that's... not the real reason you're angry..." he told her quietly, almost sadly. She opened her mouth, a perfect 'O' shape as her eyes widened. "What's the real reason?" he requested gently.
It was as though a flood burst inside of his blind friend, because suddenly she was shaking as tears ran down her face, the black kohl around her eyes almost non-existent as it mixed with the pink blush.
"I felt them, Aang..." she whispered, face turned towards the bright sunlight so at odds with her mood. The tears still dripped, but her voice was steady as though she had rehearsed it a thousand times. "We fought, and I felt them die. I could feel it when their hearts stopped beating and... d'you know, people are lighter after they die? It's their soul, leaving them. An- and now I'm supposed to be out there, celebrating, congratulating the people who killed.
"And I killed. There was one soldier, he got past The Boulder—he was going for The Duke. I saw it an- and I killed him. I knew everything he felt as he died. He- his heart was racing—he was terrified. And then I realised that he didn't want to kill anyone. He was under orders. No-one who died deserved to. No-one who fought should have had to..."
She trailed off, closing her eyes as the tears slowly stopped. Aang sat there, dumbstruck as she finished the story. Looking at her, he realised just how little he knew of his friend—it had been almost eighteen months since the invasion, yet he had no idea of the trauma she had been through. He hadn't killed anyone during the invasion; the monk's conscience was clear. He knew that Katara had only had to restrain the soldiers, and Sokka was away from much of the fight whilst he was helping his father and organising battle plans. To know that Toph, the youngest one of them all, had taken a life was not something he had expected. She was hard and strong—but he never knew she had been capable.
"You- you killed someone?" he asked timidly.
Toph rocked her head back and forth in an affirmative answer. Her entire face was blank. "Didn't you ever wonder why I refused to help in the after-war movement? To help Sparky or Kuei?"
"Yeah... I just thought you didn't like being ordered around," Aang told her, and she gave a small laugh before they sobered up.
"Wait! Is- is that why you don't eat meat anymore?" he asked, the pieces finally falling into place.
"You noticed that?" Toph asked, surprised. She had never made the fact well-known, and although she didn't necessarily try to hide it she did try to cover her new eating habits with excuses, the most common being sick of it, or having eaten the vegetables first, she would say she was full.
"You stopped asking Sokka for jerky. And then you asked me to make you a fruit tart..."
Toph nodded slowly, resignation on her face. "I couldn't. Not after that. I can't- you never did it. You never had to-" She cut herself off, wiping clumsily at her eyes.
Pulling her onto his lap, Aang hugged her from behind. She sunk into his chest while he rocked gently.
"I just... I never want to fight again..." she whispered, turning her face to rest her head on his heart.
Lifting her head up with a long finger, Aang placed a soft kiss on her forehead. "I'll make sure you never do."
A/N: You have no idea how long I've wanted to use that idea for. No idea.
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