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30th November, 2013
The streets of Upper Ba Sing Se were quiet as the small group of party-goers walked back to the Jasmine Dragon. It was far later than Katara would have liked to leave, however she hadn't banked on Sokka being drunk as well as hungry. While Aang had been roped by Suki into helping get her husband away from the buffet table, Katara had gone off in search of Iroh. It was his opinion that Toph valued higher than anyone else's, and so naturally the waterbender would ask if he wanted to leave early to check on her. The former General had sighed while shaking his head, explaining that it was something he wasn't needed for, though his nephew had flat-out refused. Or, rather, the Earth King, with whom he was talking with, had looked at Zuko with a strange expression only those embroiled in politics understood, and the Fire Lord had regretfully declined the invitation for tea. Sokka had been singing a merry Water Tribe drinking ballad, although Suki had thankfully shut him up. Neither Aang nor Katara wanted to know exactly what it was that she had whispered in his ear, but it had made him giggle under his breath.
They could see, from the end of the streets, the blazing lights of the Jasmine Dragon. Katara could feel a smile form on her face at the sight; she was worrying for nothing.
Stepping into the brightly lit tea shop, she first noticed the complete lack of customers. With the realisation, Katara also became aware that Toph was nowhere in sight.
"Where is she?"
Aang voiced the thought, and even Sokka seemed to sober somewhat.
"I'll go around the back, see if she's there," Aang continued. Katara nodded her head.
"I'll check her room. I don't think she would go far, and she's perfectly capable of protecting herself..." she trailed off, and Suki and Aang looked at her, understanding.
"We know,' the Kyoshi Warrior said. "Come on, Sokka. Let's give you a shower. You smell like alcohol."
Sokka gave another giggle, this time Katara and Aang knew exactly why. They got out of there as fast as they could.
"Toph?" Aang wandered into the kitchen and, not seeing any trace of his blind friend, left for the yard. He had seen the small garden, and had every intention of meditating there one morning with the sunrise. Zuko had already asked to be a part of that ritual. Coming up to it, he could see a man sitting on the bench. He was pale—paler than Toph, even, and as he saw Aang approach, he gave a sad smile. It was then that the airbender noticed the lump that could only be Toph, sleeping peacefully. He didn't want to intrude, but he also wanted to find out more. He heard Katara move up the path behind him, and her intake of breath as she also noticed the strange girl. Aang took her hand gently and they walked up towards Toph.
"Aang, I presume. And Katara," the boy's attitude was so soft, so disarmingly peaceful that the two intruders couldn't help but share a glance.
"Uh, yeah, hi. How do you know us?" Aang asked, fidgeting.
"Toph told me a lot about her friends. About how you saved the world—saved her. And I suppose I should be grateful, for without you, I would never have met her either. It was heaven for me. Perhaps not so much for her."
The trio glanced at Toph, whose brow had creased as though she knew the topic they were discussing and disapproved. The other man gently ran a thumb over her cheek, wiping away the traces of unease that had settled there.
"I'm Tashi, by the way."
Aang's eyes widened, and unbidden, he took a few steps away. His face paled slightly, and Katara turned to look at him, confused.
"T-Tashi?" he asked, clarifying. The other male nodded his head. "But—I heard Toph mention you. She said your name. Who are you?"
Tashi looked away, a sad frown appearing on his face.
"It's not who I am, but what I did," he said, and Katara approached him.
"What did you do?"
They locked eyes for the first time, Tashi and Aang, and the Avatar could swear there was something deeper within the orbs, something else.
"I'm the man who wrecked her life."
"It started, ohh, just weeks after the war. Days, even. Actually, it's all a bit of a blur, to be honest."
Tashi has agreed to tell his side—it had taken surprisingly little pressuring. Toph was still curled up, her head on his lap, her breathing light. She looked more at peace than Aang had seen her these last few days.
"Just... skip to the important bits. Please." Every moment they wasted on trivialities was another moment wasted that could have been put to use helping her.
"Where to start?" Tashi asked, not entirely rhetorical. Aang supplied the answer.
"How do you know Toph. Who are you to her?" Aang had a sneaking suspicion he already knew, but he needed to be certain. Tashi's eyes glanced toward Aang, something still hidden.
"I met Toph when we were very young. She didn't remember me at first, although she knew why I was there. We ignored our parent's wishes, becoming friends. She helped me in earthbending, and I—well, I was company."
"What do you mean, 'ignored your parent's wishes'?" Katara questioned. Tashi focussed his gaze on her, sending chills down Katara's spine. There was nothing particularly wrong with the expression; Tashi's eyes were a dark brown speckled with forest green. His hair was curly—large waves that gave his round face such a young appearance.
"Our parents allowed us to meet for one reason; compatibility. Despite Earth Kingdom marriages almost never being built on 'love'—the very concept is rather stupid in the minds of those in the upper echelons—there still needs to be some degree of friendship. It's been long-established that an unhappy garden yields no fruit—the same goes for relationship. Much of the time, the only purpose of marriage is to have children to pass on a name, a legacy. Our families thought no different."
"They were wrong."
Katara let out a little gasp, and all three faces turned to Toph. She was still curled into Tashi, but her eyes were wide and unblinking. Slowly, she sat up and tucked her legs under her chin. She leaned into the brown-haired boy, and he raised an arm around her.
"Toph-" Aang started, but she interrupted him.
"So, what happened next?"
Everyone took a deep breath, and Tashi began to speak again.
"They were wrong. Toph and I spent the better part of two years together before we had to get married. She was fourteen, I was fifteen."
"Two years..." Katara breathed. "That was two years ago. How- how did we not know? Toph- and you!" She turned to Tashi at this. "Where have you been? She-"
"Katara." Everyone turned to look as Toph spoke up again, even quieter than before. "Just... don't. Please." The waterbender bit her lip, and unknowingly, Toph mimicked the action. She leant her head on Tashi's shoulder, closing her eyes at the feel of his lips on top of her head.
"Yes. Two years," he continued. "It's different in the Earth Kingdom, Katara. I know that in the Water Tribes, the age of betrothal is 16. Toph has been my fiancée—my intended wife—since we were born. After that, marriage can happen as soon as the first moon cycle hits the woman." Katara's eyes widened, gaping wordlessly between Toph and Tashi. He didn't let her interject, however, moving the topic forward.
"Our families were lucky in that Toph's didn't begin until after she came back. It would have been shameful for the family if she was not prepared to be married by the time it started. She was very much against the idea at first—we got into more than a few punch-ups over that—but with time it became... normal. She still hated the idea, but wasn't so against it. One day we were friends and the next, we were married. And you know what happens on the wedding night." There was no trace of shame or embarrassment, on either of their faces, but Katara and Aang couldn't help but move uncomfortably.
"We respected each other enough, and over time, that respect turned into admiration, and love. Our families were happy, and all things considered, we were happy. I didn't take Toph's freedom, and she gave me her love and happiness. We were happy. And we were going to be even happier..."
Tashi stopped here, and Toph nestled her face deep into his shoulder. Aang looked over the two, confused, but Katara had a feeling she knew what had happened. Her small gasp alerted Aang and Tashi, although it wasn't them she was interested in talking to. Her eyes roamed Toph's slight body, and covered up by longer clothes she could still imagine the scar on her abdomen. She could still remember the words she mumbled to Aang after the sword had struck his hand; If the sword went through you, I don't even know how much I could help... the damage it could do to your insides....
"Oh, god, Toph..." she murmured, although the blind girl didn't make a move.
"Katara, what-?" Aang was horribly confused, and Katara's expression only scared him more. "Sweetie?" She shook her head, and looked at Tashi.
"Is it true?" she asked him, and in the moonlight they could see twin tear streaks running down his face. He let out a sad smile, leaning into Toph.
"Yeah. But not anymore. And it was my fault..."
Toph jumped at him at that, a surprising amount of fervour in her actions.
"No! No, it wasn't. You didn't do anything!" she cried, but Katara could see Tashi didn't believe her. She could see him blame himself, and she could see that he knew Toph wasn't only trying to convince him.
"No, it was, Toph."
"Um, guys?" Aang piped up again, unwilling to ruin the emotion of the moment but desperately needing to know what they were talking about. Toph looked towards him, and shrugged.
"We beat Sokka," she said simply, her voice devoid of the emotion that had infused it only seconds before. "Or, we would have..."
Aang's eyes widened in understanding, but he knew something was missing. Something only the two of them knew. "What happened?" he asked quietly.
"I happened." Aang's eyes whipped around to find Tashi's in the moonlight. "If I hadn't- I lost her. Both of them. I lost my little girl, and my big one and then Toph lost me. Spirits are such... omnipotent beings, aren't they, Avatar?" The sudden change in topic surprised Aang, so he merely nodded.
"Yeah... they are."
"Some are benevolent, and others... well... you never want to meet them. And then there are beings like me, who aren't really spirits at all, but rather... well, ghosts. Stuck. My penance, I suppose." He gave a rueful smile, and Toph only held on tighter.
"It wasn't your fault," she repeated. He kissed the top of her head again, brushing his lips against hers in a gentle display of togetherness.
"Toph, is that... is that what I felt, earlier? Why you didn't want to talk about it. Why-" she stopped here, realising something. Taking Toph's hand, she looked into the other girl's blind eyes. "Is that why you can't talk to Suki?" She squeezed gently, giving her support. Slowly, Toph began to nod her head.
"I can remember... everything. It was so close and now- and now there's nothing..." she murmured. "And all I can do is try and forget because if I don't..." she didn't finish the sentence, but she didn't have to. Katara glanced at Aang, whose brow was furrowed as though he were deep in thought.
"Toph, I have to go..." Tashi broke the silence, whispering in the blind bender's ear. She shook slightly, before nodding again.
"You'll- you'll come back, yeah?" she asked, and all but she could see the guilt cross his face.
"I'll do everything I can to see you again..." Katara suddenly stood up to give them a moment, pulling Aang with her.
"Thank you, Tashi," he said, and the brown-haired boy gave a tiny smile.
"You're welcome, Aang."
The Avatar allowed his girlfriend to lead him back to the tea shop. The sun had begun to rise, bathing the path in a golden light. The two were silent, deep in thought as they walked through the threshold. It was Aang who spoke first, looking at Katara with clear eyes.
"Katara? I think... I think I can help her..." he mumbled. "I mean... I feel like this has happened before..."
"Aang, do it. I can't- I want to help her but I can't." They looked out towards the garden, the unmistakable sound of someone's heart breaking coming through the window. "Help her, please."
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