Avatar: The Last Airbender
Rating: Teen – Scenes of Sensuality
Disclaimer: "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and its corresponding characters, locations, and trademarks are the properties of Nickelodeon. All rights reserved.
Author Comments: At long last, the next chapter is finally here! Hooray! Big thanks to everyone for their comments and reviews. As usual, I apologize for the delay in updating. I won't go into details, but if you've read my deviantART journals then it's somewhat explained. Even so this chapter was long overdue, so hopefully it's good enough to help make up for it a little. Enjoy!
Chapter 9: Secrets Revealed, Part 1
Katara huffed with each long stride as she finally reached the inner wall of Ba Sing Se. The city's tram system had saved her at least an hour's worth of running thought the streets, but she'd already gotten a late start, and if she didn't hurry there was no way she would get there in time. She had to stop them, even if it meant telling Aang and Sokka before she was ready. It didn't matter anymore what their reactions would be; she couldn't imagine how things could get any worse than they already were.
"Whoa there, little lady," said an elderly looking guard standing at the gate, raising his hand as she approached and signaling her to stop. "Where are you headed in such a hurry?"
"Please," she replied urgently, "I need you to open the gate."
"Oh? And why is that?" inquired a second, younger guard standing nearby.
Katara groaned in frustration. "Look, it's important, alright? I don't have time for this."
"Is that so?" the second guard said haughtily, crossing his arms. "Well then, sweetheart, how about this? Why don't you tell us what's the big rush, and we'll tell you if it's important."
The Water Tribe girl sighed and clenched her fist, fighting back the sudden urge to water-whip the infuriating man. She thought better of it, though, pushing her aggravation and urgency aside for the time being. Getting angry and being rude wouldn't get her anywhere, and assaulting a guard would just get her into trouble. Having no other options, she swallowed her pride and mustered as sympathetic a sounding plea as possible.
"Oh, please forgive me. I'm just in a hurry. I was supposed to meet some friends outside the wall and I'm already running really late."
"Eh, I don't know…" the younger guard muttered, seeming unconvinced, "that doesn't sound so important to me."
"Please? I just need to get through."
"That's enough, Raul. Quit messing with the poor girl," the first guard said, coming to her aid.
"Okay, okay. I was just having a little fun," Raul conceded with a now playful tone to his voice. "So, these friends of yours: A boy around your age wearing blue, and a young blind girl?"
"Err…yeah, that's them," Katara confirmed, puzzled slightly by the mention of what must have been Sokka. "How long ago did they come through here?"
"Oh, I don't know, some twenty-something minutes, I think," the older guard replied. "We'll go ahead and open the gate. I don't want to keep you any longer than we already have."
"Thank you," she said kindly.
The two guards took their positions on either side of the street and with a quick, ridged motion they opened up a doorway in a small section of the wall. Katara darted through the opening without delay, hearing it being closed shut again by the guards after she emerged on the other side. She then paused briefly to allow herself a moment to think and catch her breath.
Twenty minutes. She wasn't as close as she'd hoped she would be, and the fact that Sokka was here to meet Toph when she came through was more than a little irritating. He probably didn't even bother trying to catch Aang, much less talk him out of all this nonsense. It figures, she should have known better than to expect any help from her jerk of a brother. Even so, with how Aang was acting it probably wouldn't have made any difference anyway, and if she hurried she might still be able to catch them. What happens after that, she didn't know, she just hoped she wasn't already too late.
The waterbender looked out over the horizon and then started off at as fast a pace as she could muster. After only a few seconds, however, she heard a faint rumbling in the distance and felt the earth shudder slightly beneath her feet. She stopped dead in her tracks as an ominous feeling came over her.
Sokka winced as he looked on and saw Aang slam into the ground yet again, landing on his side and rolling twice before coming to a stop, laying facedown in the dirt. When the dust settled around him, he slowly pushed himself up on his hands and knees and rubbed a patch of dirt off his cheek, groaning from the soreness he felt throughout his body.
The Avatar lifted his head and glared intently at Toph across the way, who stood with her arms folded and a smug grin on her face. Aang grimaced as he rose to one knee and clutched the spot on his shoulder on which he'd landed, certain the fall would leave a bruise – one of several, by now.
"You're getting pretty good at taking falls," she continued taunting. "I could've felt that one a mile away."
"Ugh, me too," Sokka added, cringing.
The airbender staggered to his feet and pushed the throbbing pain of his muscles from his mind. He didn't understanding how things could be going so badly. Everything he threw either missed or was redirected back at him, resulting in him crashing into the ground. It was so…infuriating.
He quickly refocused himself and resumed his earthbending stance, taking a step forward and planting his foot firmly to the ground. He leaned forward and shifted the weight from his back foot, pulling up the back half of a slab of rock along with it. He repeated this action with his front foot, seesawing the slab backward on a mound of earth forming underneath before smashing it back down into place, sending a large wave of earth rolling towards Toph, growing in size as it went. He then adjusted his stance, readying himself for his next move for when the mound reached its target.
Toph responded by widening her stance and squatting down low, spreading her arms out to each side in a wide arch. With her wrists bent and hands slightly cupped, she brought them around in a broad scooping motion. As they returned to her center, in one fluent motion she flipped the position of her hands and pushed both arms skyward. An instant later, the enormous mound of moving dirt exploded into a dense cloud of dust and debris, scattering bits of rubble about the landscape and quelling the attack the airbender had planned.
Aang could only groan and grit his teeth in frustration.
Why couldn't he hit her? It was a stupid question for him to ask himself, having already known the answer since before they began. It wasn't that he couldn't hit her, that he didn't have the ability to land a blow. He just…couldn't. His conscience wouldn't let him. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but there was more to it than that.
It was taking everything he had to keep his anger at bay. Every failed attack he made, every hit and snide remark Toph delivered, all of them served to further fuel his animosity towards her. It was so tempting to just give in, to let it all out and use it against her, but he couldn't risk it. What if he went too far? What if he lost control? He all but hated her for everything that had happened, but he could never forgive himself if he hurt her…Katara would never forgive him.
"Hey, Aang!" Toph called out through the thick dust cloud, breaking the boy's train of thought. "How does thirty inches of granite strike yuh?!"
Aang narrowed his eyebrows, puzzled by the girl's strange question. Before he could put any thought into it's meaning, however, a stone larger than a watermelon shot out through the dust cloud, leaving the tiny airborne particles twisting and swirling in it's wake as it sped towards him. All of a sudden the meaning of her little riddle was crystal clear.
The bland expression of realization was all he had time to mutter before the mass of rock collided with his shoulder, grazing passed his forearms that he'd only just been able to cross in front of him to shield himself from a direct hit. It was only a glancing blow, ricocheting off the side of his upper arm and landing in a heap of rubble several feet away, but the force of the impact was still enough to throw him off balance and send him spiraling back down to the ground, grunting from the soreness that once again coursed through his body.
When the dust finally settled, Toph straightened her posture and crossed her arms, lowering her head and frowning in disappointment.
This was getting pathetic. She'd barely had to exert any effort at all over these last five minutes and she was wiping the floor with him. As a matter of fact, if she hadn't been holding back, for the most part – purposely avoiding direct blows and using what basically amounted to glorified dirt clods as opposed to solid stone, she probably could have broken several of Aang's bones by now…if not worse. But no more, she was going to put a stop to this nonsense now.
"Alright, that's it!" she barked angrily. "This has gone on long enough! Are you going to fight me or not?!"
"W-what?" Aang replied groggily as he staggered to his feet. "What are you talking about?"
"You know exactly what I'm talking about! Do you want to prove you've master earthbending or not?!"
"Wha-? Of course! That's why we're out here!"
"Then stop holding back!"
As Sokka watched the scene unfold, his eyebrows rose slightly in surprise when he heard Toph's words. Aang was holding back? Of course…he had to be. For some reason the thought hadn't occurred to him before, but it was so obvious now. He'd figured that Toph was right about Aang still needing training, but even if he did have a way to go before he mastered earthbending, there was no way the fight should be this one-sided, not if he were really trying. Maybe he was having second thoughts; coming to his senses about all of this. The young warrior hoped that was the case, at least.
Meanwhile, Aang felt his nerves tense up at the girl's accusation. How could she…? He closed his eyes and pushed the thought aside. Of course she would know – he didn't know why he was surprised by that fact. Regardless, he couldn't admit to it. It would raise too many questions, questions he wasn't sure he'd be able to answer, with "why" being the biggest one.
"I'm not!" he lied, denying the claim.
"Boarcrap!" The blind girl retorted, not believing him for an instant. "I've seen baby badgermoles that could put up a better fight than you!"
"I'm doing the best I can!"
Toph lowered her head and let out a long sigh. "If that's really true," she started, a somber tone slipping into her voice, "then I am ashamed to call myself your earthbending teacher. We're through here." She then turned towards the area where Sokka stood watching, and began walking. "You're training resumes tomorrow morning at dawn."
An alarm suddenly went off in Aang's head as all of his fears swept over him, reinforcing the gravity of the situation he was facing. It was…over? He lost? No…no, he would never lose Katara so easily, barely putting up a fight. And yet…that's exactly what happened. He had been so afraid that Katara would hate him if he somehow hurt Toph that he couldn't bring himself to fight, but as a result he lost anyway. No, he couldn't let it end this way, he was not going to lose her. It wasn't over…not yet.
"Wait," he said, taking a weary step forward and painfully clutching at his side. "I'm not done."
Toph didn't respond and continued walking, hearing his plea and ignoring it. The airbender grimaced and clenched his fist as a sudden flash of anger sparked within him, fuming from the girl's dismissive attitude.
"I'm not finished yet!"
"Then hit me!" Toph exclaimed, turning back to face him. "Knock me off my feet! Hmph, if you even can…"
Aang closed his eyes as the emotional conflict culminating inside of him reached its peak. The darkness he felt in his heart was raging though his insides and struggling to get out, fighting savagely against every sensible thought and moral fiber of his being…and the darkness was winning. There was no choice now – the threat of losing her was just too strong. The time for thinking was over. It was time to act, to do what was necessary to take back what was his.
Spirits help him…
On her signal, Aang squared his shoulders and took a single ridged step forward, ejecting three head sized stones up out of the ground in front of him simultaneously. He then swung his other leg around, his foot meeting each of them at their zenith and launching them forward. He took another step, firing three more stones, then three more; all in one, fluent set of motions completed within a matter of a few seconds.
Toph responded immediately by shifting back into her fighting stance, lifting one hand up in the air and bending a large pillar out of the earth ahead of her. She slid her foot forward on the ground and quickly swept it back across in front of her, dragging the pillar along with it and blocking the first cluster of stones. As the now ruined column crumbled away, she slid her other foot out in front and thrust her hand forward with her middle, ring and pinky fingers extended. Not a moment later, three narrow beams of rock jutted diagonally out of the ground away from her, intercepting the next set of stones before it all collapsed into a pile of rubble.
The last three projectiles were dispatched by the young earthbender just as quickly with two strong jabs and a firm headbutt, disintegrating them instantly and reducing them to dust. She then adjusted her stance and prepared for one final counterattack, huffing lightly to herself in a slight feeling of disappointment. Not bad, but he'd have to do better than that if he was going to…
In her moment of hesitation, Toph felt the earth shift beneath her feet as it was unexpectedly pushed out from under her, forcing her off balance. She shrieked in surprise as she fell forward, barely managing to catch herself with her hands before she hit the ground face first. When the shock subsided, she closed her widened eyes and shook her head in order to ease the sudden tension in her nerves.
He'd caught her off guard. That barrage of rocks was never meant to actually reach her, only draw her attention, and then when she started to counterattack he would interrupt it with his own. Waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Good…very good. He was learning something after all. With that thought in mind, a sly grin tugged at the girl's lips as she pushed herself up onto one knee.
"Very good, Twinkle-Toes! Now that's more like it!"
Aang grumbled in annoyance at the remark, his muscles tensing. "Stop calling me 'Twinkle-Toes'."
Toph merely chuckled lightly in response. "Not a chance…Twinkle-Toes." With that, she balled her hand into a fist and drilled it down into the ground beside her, forcing a huge column of rock up out of the earth directly under her opponent's feet.
As the pillar began to rise, the Avatar quickly bent his knees and rode it skyward, jumping off when it reached it's peak and launching him a good fifteen to twenty feet into the air. On descent, he lifted his arms over his head and gripped his hands together, and when he landed he stomped his feet and slammed his fists down hard, leaving a shallow crater several feet across imprinted in the ground below him. A large boulder as tall as he was then jutted up from the ground ahead of him, suspended briefly in midair before being propelled forward.
The blind girl reacted swiftly by planting one foot forward and twisting her back foot sideways, rooting herself into the earth. As the boulder approached, she lurched forward and clapped her hands together out in front of her, cleaving the mass of rock vertically through the center like an apple being sliced by a blade. The two halves separated and blew passed her, easily missing her on either side by about a foot as they continued along their newly altered trajectory. The moment they passed, she shifted her weight to her hind leg and cocked her arms back before thrusting them forward again, palms facing outward. The hunks of stone responded to her movements in turn, coming to a stop in mid-flight behind her before snapping back towards Aang as if they were fired from a slingshot.
Aang promptly brought his forearms to bear, pulling two massive, triangular slabs up along with them, shielding himself behind a half-pyramid of solid rock. The two boulders plowed into the barrier a second later, ripping themselves apart from the force of the impact and leaving gaping wounds in the walls where they hit. The airbender let out a sigh of relief as a result, not entirely confident that his makeshift shields would be able to withstand the blows. They barely did, at that, toppling over soon after and forcing him to jump back to avoid being crushed.
Sokka stood in awe with Momo perched up on his shoulder, a similar expression occupying the lemur's face as they watched the scene unfurl. Thousands of pounds of soil and stone being moved, warped and tossed around like rags in only a minute's time – it was almost unbelievable. He hadn't remembered the fighting in the Earth Rumble matches even being this exciting. If it weren't for the current circumstances he probably would have let out an exuberant cheer or two at the display of power. Oh, how he wished he could do some of that bending stuff at times like this.
A moment later, a melon-sized chunk of debris lying next to Aang shot up and slammed into his side, causing him to grunt loudly and grimace as he doubled over, clutching his ribs in pain. He looked back up and glared intently at Toph standing across the way, still wearing that same smug grin on her face, perfectly framed between the pair of hair-loops she still wore that constantly reminded him of Katara. Again…she'd done it again! What did he have to do?! Every single time it was the same blasted thing! Curse that little wench!
The airbender snarled furiously and leapt forward, tightly clenching his fist and punching through the air with a powerful uppercut motion. The ground before him erupted in a spray of dirt and gravel, a by-product accompanying one of the ruined barriers that rested there as it was ripped off the ground and flung recklessly across the battlefield.
Toph dug in with her back foot and flexed her arms down by her side in preparation. When the wall of stone neared, she quickly thrust her hands forward and intercepted it, catching the edge flat against her palms. It didn't stop coming, however, and she immediately began to strain and grit her teeth as the sheer momentum from the massive slab overwhelmed her and started pushing her back. She held firm and resisted with all her might, carving a shallow wound in the earth before finally sliding to a stop several feet from where she previously stood. She paused briefly and took in a few labored breaths, then heaved the mass of rock over her head and threw it off to the side where it landed with a thud, causing the ground to shake.
Aang growled and lunged forward again moments later, throwing both hands out towards the young earthbender in a fit of rage. There was a slight tremor amidst the landscape, and every single piece of debris around him, ranging anywhere in size from that of a closed fist to a chair, flew off the ground spiraling randomly over the terrain in Toph's direction; many of which wildly off target.
She squared her stance and prepared to earthbend a wall up to defend herself, when suddenly she hesitated, her concentration divided by a pair of familiar footsteps quickly approaching the scene. It couldn't be…
"Stop!" called a loud, frantic voice, drawing Toph and Sokka's attention.
The blind girl's eyes lit up as the sound of the voice reached her ears. Katara? It was her! She came! Sokka was right! She actually-
"Ugh!" Toph grunted in pain, her mind thrown back into reality by a stone hitting her in the shoulder. She staggered a little from the impact and was immediately struck again in the chest, then again in the other shoulder and to the side of her lower abdomen before she finally brought her forearms to bear.
Katara watched in horror as the younger girl was pelted by the barrage of rocks and forced to the ground. "Stop it!" she cried out again in desperation, running to them as fast as she could. She came to a halt near where her brother was standing and gazed out at the surroundings, taken aback by the level of destruction that marred the landscape.
There was a narrow fissure that zigzagged back and forth across the battlefield like a bolt of lightning, scarring the earth between the two combatants. Boulders of every shape and size, along with the jagged, broken remains of rocks and pillars jutting up from the ground, were scattered randomly all around them. It was total carnage. She couldn't understand; they were friends, how could they do this to each other?
When the waterbender's gaze finally worked its way over to Aang, what she saw startled her. He looked so…angry. The look in his eyes, so full of fire and hate; she'd never seen him like this outside the Avatar State before. It was frightening. Something was wrong…she knew it. There was far more to this than just his earthbending training.
"You can't have her!" shouted Aang, somehow unaware of Katara's arrival or simply paying her no mind.
"W-what?" Toph replied, slowly pushing herself up off the ground. She groaned softly and hissed at the stinging sensation from the fresh cuts and scrapes on her arms. "What are you talking about?"
"Don't even start! I saw you!" he retorted. "And don't try and deny it! I saw you with my own two eyes! You and Katara! I saw you out by the lake! I saw you kissing!"
Katara stood stunned and motionless, and an enormous weight fell over her as her friend's words resonated throughout her being. "He knows…?" she muttered in disbelief. A moment later, memories of the night before started replaying in her mind: Aang's outburst, Sokka's odd behavior – it all suddenly made sense. Wait…Sokka?!
An instant later, she turned towards Sokka with the fury of a hurricane inside her. "You knew?! You knew that…that we…that Aang was upset?! You knew…this whole time, and you…you…" She paused briefly as streams of tears began running down her cheeks. "How could you…?"
"Katara…" he began, taking a cautions step towards her, absolutely ridden with guilt.
"How could you?!" she cried, shoving him back and nearly knocking him to the ground.
Meanwhile, Toph rose to her feet with her eyebrows narrowed in confusion at Aang's words. She didn't know how he could have possibly seen them. They were practically out in the middle of nowhere, and she would have sensed him walking up on them long before… Her thoughts trailed off for a second, then it donned on her. He was an airbender; she could have been looking right at him, but if he were using his glider she wouldn't have ever even known he was there. Spirits, that was annoying.
So much for Katara's wanting to tell them when she was ready – Aang already knew, and based on the shouting she heard nearby, so did Sokka. No point trying to hide it anymore. "Alright, fine. We kissed. So what? What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything!" the boy replied. "It's your fault Appa's gone, I won't let you take Katara, too!"
"What?!" Toph shouted back, completely shocked by the revelation. "That's what this is all about?! You're still blaming me for Appa, and now you're mad at me because Katara and I like each other?!"
She paused briefly and just stared into nothingness, half in anger, and half in utter disbelief at what she was hearing. This never had anything to do with his training, or her safety during the invasion. Everything he'd said back at the apartment – his reasoning, his voiced concern, it was all a lie. He'd found out about the girls' feelings for each other, and now he…he wanted her gone. Was Katara right? Did Aang and Sokka…hate them?
The young earthbender shook her head and pushed the thought aside. Who cares what those two thought? She and Katara liked each other, and that was enough as far as she was concerned. If those idiots didn't like it, that was their problem.
"Forget this. We're done here," she said firmly, turning towards where Katara stood, and started walking.
The Water Tribe girl looked on, ignoring whatever Sokka was trying to say to her, now hearing little more than incoherent babbling rather than words. When she saw her friend starting to make her way over in their direction, she gave her brother one last, lingering glance, her eyes filled with pain and the feeling of betrayal, before turning away from him and running out to meet Toph.
"Katara, wait!" Sokka pled with her. He quickly reached out after his sister as she started off, catching her by the arm just in time and stopping her before she could get away. "Let me explain!"
"Let go!" she yelled, violently trying to rip her arm from her brother's grip. He managed to hang on, however, wrapping his other arm around her and pulling her into a firm hug, but careful to keep as gentle a hold on her as possible. Not an easy thing to do with her continuously fighting to break free from him.
"Please, just listen! I tried to stop them. I tried to talk to him, just like you said, but he wouldn't listen!" He paused for a moment as he felt her once desperate struggles begin to die away. Now was his chance; she was listening, for the time being at least. "I'm sorry. I didn't know," he explained softly. "Aang told me, but I…I didn't… If I'd known what this was really about I never would have acted like I did. I was stupid…and I'm sorry…"
Sokka stood for a short time longer and just held Katara there in his arms, hoping his words would sink in. It was all he could think to do to try and calm her down, to reassure her that he was on her side. Based on her increasingly relaxed demeanor, it seemed to have had an affect. After another few seconds, he felt her begin to stir against him once again in an attempt to get away, though with considerably less aggression behind her efforts than before. This time he let her go, and watched as she made her way out to the young earthbender.
Momo – who seemed to have gone missing during all of this – hopped up onto the boy's shoulder and purred, his ears sunken down by his side. Sokka let out a faint sigh in response. "Yeah…me too…"
Chapter 9: Secrets Revealed, Part 2
When Katara reached Toph out on the battlefield, she wasted no time in pulling the younger girl into her loving arms and holding her tightly as they each shared the warmth of the other's embrace. For their own reasons, they were both right and wrong all at the same time about how they had acted towards one another. They both knew it, too, but none of that mattered to either of them right now.
"I'm so glad you're alright," Katara said, practically gleaming with joy.
"I told you I wouldn't get hurt," Toph replied with a small grin, pulling away and breaking the hug.
As they separated, her arms lightly brushed up against the older girl's clothes and irritated the scratches that had been caused earlier, making her wince slightly from the stinging pain. This reaction did not go unnoticed, however, and Katara immediately looked down at her friend's arms to see the source of that discomfort, as well as the blood slowly seeping from her wounds and smeared up and down her arms.
"Well, you did," she countered, carefully holding the girl's arms in her hands. "You're bleeding."
"It's nothing, just a few scratches."
While that was probably the case, Katara wasn't about to dismiss the injuries so hastily having witnessed what caused them. She reached for the pouch on her side to draw out some water so she could heal Toph's arms, but quickly realized that it wasn't there. She'd left the house in such a hurry earlier that she must have forgotten all about it. It was probably still lying around on the floor in her room, or out in the foyer somewhere. No matter. At least the fighting was over, and none of the wounds looked bad enough that they couldn't heal themselves anyway.
"Alright then," the waterbender said, smiling lightly as she placed a hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "It has to hurt, though. Let's just get back to the apartment and I'll touch you up a little."
"Whoa there, Sugar Queen," Toph replied, taking a step back and lifting her hands in a defensive manner. "I like you and all, but…jeez, take it easy, will you? I'm only twelve!"
Katara narrowed her eyebrows a little in confusion. "What are you-?" She paused suddenly at the realization of what her friend's comment meant, and her cheeks turned flush with embarrassment. "Toph! I… That…that is not what I meant, and you know it."
"Whatever you say, Katara," the blind girl teased, enjoying her little moment of revenge for the joke she had played on her yesterday at the clothing store. "Whatever you say." She then chuckled softly to herself and resumed walking, with Katara following behind shortly after.
In the meantime, Aang looked on as the two girls shared their little moment out on the battlefield, and all the while a devious smirk tugged at his lips. "So, that's it then?" he asked, a haughty undertone slipping into his voice. "I guess that means you lose, Toph."
"Ha! You wish," she scoffed, not breaking stride.
"Don't you remember?" he continued, smugly crossing his arms. "You just quit."
"And you lied. What's your point?"
"We had a deal, remember? You forfeited, which means you lose. You lose…you leave."
Toph stopped in her tracks at the sound of the boy's words, quickly getting aggravated with him again. This was becoming truly absurd now. As rash and insolent as it was, she could at least understand Aang doing this for the reasons he gave them back at the house, but this? He wanted her to leave because she and Katara liked each other? It was insane. Enough was enough.
"You listen here, clouds-for-brains," she began, extending her arm and pointing her finger straight at him across the field. "I came out here because you said you wanted to prove you've mastered earthbending. I did not come out here to fight you over Katara! I don't know what your problem is, but how I feel about her is none of your business! Now, I want you to understand one very simple thing: I am not going anywhere. Deal's off."
With that, Katara reached up and place a supportive hand on the young earthbender's shoulder, giving Aang little more than a saddened, disappointed gaze before they resumed walking.
The once satisfied expression on the Avatar's face vanished almost immediately, having his hopes dashed yet again and seeing nothing that he could do about it. How could he be so stupid? He had just blurted out the real reasons behind all of this, the very truth that he'd been so desperate to keep secret. There wasn't a single thing he could say to try and save face that they would ever believe. Whatever chance he may have had was now gone. It was over.
"You can't have her," he said out of the blue, his animosity apparent in his voice.
"For the love of…" Toph muttered under her breath, her frustration rapidly reaching its peak. She then turned and faced him, her anger written all over her face. "What's your problem?! Why not, huh? Why? Is it because we're both girls? What kind of stupid reason is that?!"
"Come on, Toph," Katara cut in, a sour undertone to her voice. "Let's just go."
The airbender gave no real reply, simply repeating his previous words almost systematically. "You can't have her."
"What do you care anyway?!" Toph barked back. "I don't see your name on her!"
"How could you? You can't see anything anyway!"
"That's it!" she exclaimed, his callous remark finally pushing her over the edge. She stepped towards him an instant later and resumed her unique fighting stance.
Katara was about to intervene when a swell of earth suddenly rose up from underneath her, causing her to shriek in surprise as she was knocked off her feet and laid out flat on a slab resting atop the mound. A moment later the ground began to move, carrying the slab along with it like a raft being hauled down a raging river. With no time to react, all the Water Tribe girl could do was hang on to the sides and ride it out as it carried her over towards Sokka, who now stood wide-eyed with a fearful expression on his face. The slab came to an abrupt halt only a few feet away from him before it dropped back down into the earth, throwing her off and onto him and sending the two siblings crashing to the ground.
With Katara now safely – relatively – out of the way, Toph reaffirmed her stance and extended her arms out in front of her. A low, barely audible groan emanated from the landscape as she unclenched her fists. A second later she took a step forward and slammed her foot back into the ground, causing a torrent of fragmented rock, dirt and debris to explode out ahead of her, filling the air and quickly engulfing the battlefield in a thick cloud of dust.
As the dust spread, Sokka and Katara shook off their mild dizziness and righted themselves, looking back out at their friends just in time to see Toph marching forward and disappearing into the cloud. They were then, however, forced to turn away and breathe into their arms as it overtook them, gradually being pushed their way by the light breeze.
Aang, meanwhile, was already coughing into his sleeve and struggling to keep the dirt out of his eyes, having been blasted and surrounded by the earthen fog before he could effectively react. This was a tactic he was certainly familiar with seeing the girl use: limiting her opponent's visibility and taking away their only means of attack and retaliation. A person can't fight what they can't see, after all. That advantage would last long, though, as he had an advantage of his own in situations like this.
A small gap in the cloud reached him a few seconds later, allowing him a brief moment to pause and catch a clean breath. He made a few quick motions with his arms, and then fluently brought them down and out to either side of his body, drawing in a large gust of air from above. The powerful downward wind blew the dust clear of the entire area almost instantly, revealing…nothing.
He retreated back a step and fell into a defensive stance, looking around with a sense of confusion. He glanced to his left where Sokka and Katara sat recovering from the dust, and quickly scanned the surroundings in search of his opponent. He looked left, right, even behind himself in case she'd managed to slip around somehow. But wherever he looked, the only thing he saw was the barren terrain, with Toph nowhere to be found.
When the Water Tribe siblings recovered and turned their gaze back out to the battlefield, they were met with the same empty landscape, and their minds filled with their own bewildered thoughts and disbelief. They traded a quick glance with one another and proceeded to look around for her themselves, but were stuck with the same results. She was gone.
"Wha-? Toph? Where…where'd she go?" Katara muttered, turning towards Sokka who could only shrug his shoulders in response.
They couldn't at all think where she could have gone. She was right there not thirty seconds ago. There weren't any boulders or anything still lying around large enough for her to hide behind, and there was no way she could have gotten out of sight range in so short a time – not that running had seemed like a very likely thing to be on her mind. Somehow she'd just vanished.
Katara called out a couple of times for her friend, pausing briefly and waiting for some kind of response. Suddenly, there was a loud crackling noise as a slender pillar several feet tall ejected itself out of the ground near where the young earthbender previously stood, startling everyone and making them flinch slightly in surprise. The pillar then withdrew back into the earth a moment later, only to have another one instantly shoot up a few feet away from the first. Within a second's time, that one too dropped back beneath the surface and was replaced by a third.
Aang hastily changed his stance, noticing a pattern in the columns' emergence with them coming up a few paces closer to him each time. One right after the other, then another, and another; each one jutting up and then immediately receding back into the ground, rapidly getting closer and closer. He knew he had to move, and fast, but if he reacted too soon, wherever Toph was, she would certainly take advantage of it.
He stood with his full focus concentrated on the approaching pillars, waiting for the right time to evade. He didn't have to wait long, however, and they were soon within spitting distance. He braced himself to make his move as one more pillar disappeared belowground only a few feet ahead of him, when suddenly they stopped.
Instead of the expected attack, there was nothing but a quiet stillness in the air that left his entire body on edge. The tension was excruciating, as mere seconds seemed to creep by like minutes. Then, without warning, another stone column exploded up from behind him and slammed square into his back, sending him flying through the air and crashing down over ten feet away.
Sokka and Katara could only look on, unable to react despite the concern evident in their body language. Katara, especially, standing with her eyes wide and her hands covering her mouth after seeing another of her friends thrown so violently to the ground.
She didn't know what to do. First Toph, and now Aang. There had to be something she could do to stop them before someone got badly hurt, but what? If she had brought her pouch she might be able to use her water to trap them in some ice or something, stop them that way. Without her waterbending, though, she was useless. There was nothing she could think to do that wouldn't end up with her just getting caught in the crossfire, and Sokka's thoughts were much the same.
The young Avatar groaned hard as he laid facedown in the dirt, writhing from the intense pain in his back. He could barely move it hurt so much, and every breath made it feel like a crushing weight was pressing down on his insides. He couldn't remember ever being hit so hard before. His strength was drained, and it was a struggle for him to even try and push himself off the ground. When he finally made it up onto his hands and knees, he noticed a large shadow looming over him and immediately knew what it was.
"I guess this means you lose," Toph said, standing nearby with a massive boulder suspended above her opponent. She grinned softly to herself – attacking from underground worked better than she thought it would. She'd have to remember that for the future.
Aang closed his eyes as his head throbbed, overwhelmed with the pain coursing through his body and the memories of the two girls again invading his thoughts. The images flashed through his head almost in a blur, unrelenting in his mind's continued war with itself, quickly revitalizing the feelings of anger that still burned inside him. Everything he'd ever loved had been taken away from him, but not again. He couldn't take it anymore – he wouldn't take it anymore. Just then, he felt his head swoon as a sudden sense of vertigo rushed over him…and then everything went black.
"No…" the Avatar hissed, his voice strained and distant with a strange, hollow quality.
At the same time, Toph swung the boulder clear and let it drop to the ground with a thud. She then turned slightly and began walking, leaving him hunched over on the ground as she stepped around him in route to where the others stood. After only a few steps, she hesitated. Something was different; there was a change in the air. She couldn't describe it, something just felt…wrong. A moment later, her nerves tensed up when she felt a soft ripple move through the earth, and she quickly turned back towards Aang.
"NOOO!" he roared, an enormous burst of air suddenly exploding out around him in all directions.
Caught off guard, the young earthbender took the full brunt of the shockwave head on and was thrown off her feet and carried through the air, landing on her back nearly thirty feet away somewhere off to the side between Aang and the others.
She rolled over slowly and groaned as she staggered to her feet, feeling a little disoriented from the force of the blast. However, her dizziness vanished almost immediately when she felt the ground violently begin to shake. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she struggled to even keep her balance. She'd never felt vibrations this powerful before, and they weren't letting up. It was frightening, especially considering that there didn't seem to be a source.
"What's going on?!" she exclaimed, nearly in a panic.
"Get out of there!" Sokka yelled to her, pausing briefly to recover his own balance. "It's Aang! He's gone into the Avatar State!"
Without a second thought, Toph took that as her cue that it was time to go. She didn't understand very much about all this Avatar stuff yet, but one thing she did know – based on what the others had explained to her about the last few times he'd done this – is that it was not something she wanted to mess with. Without further delay, she wheeled around in the general direction of Sokka's voice, and ran. She barely managed three full strides before a gust of air plowed into her from behind and knocked her back to the ground.
"Toph!" Katara called out in alarm, unsure of what to do. Spirits, why did she have to forget that blasted water pouch? "Sokka, do something!" she pleaded in utter desperation.
"What do you want me to do? All I've got is this lousy boomerang," he replied helplessly, leaving his sister dejected with no other options but to stand and watch.
As the quaking subsided, what once was a calm breeze drifting through suddenly multiplied in velocity tenfold, kicking up clouds of dust across the landscape. The strong wind swirled around the entire area in an enormous arc, gravitating around a single point where the currents converged and shot skyward. The same point where Aang stood hunched over, fists pressed together tightly with his eyes and tattoos aglow. With all the dirt and dust being sucked in it looked like a small tornado in the middle of a desert.
Keeping her face shielded from any airborne debris, Katara peered out past her arm and considered the situation, one that had become all too familiar since the group's journey began. It was always the same. Something would happen that would upset Aang so greatly that he couldn't cope with the stress, and he would lose all sense of himself. For some reason, only she seemed to have any influence with him then.
She knew what she needed to do.
Pushing her apprehensiveness aside, the waterbender slowly stepped forward, staying low to the ground and fighting against the gale-force winds that constantly threatened to push her off balance. Sokka was about to try and catch her when he stopped himself, understanding what it was she had to do – as if he could actually stop her if he wanted to. Hearing a frantic squeal from Momo, who was clutching his sleeve for dear life, he grabbed onto the lemur and pulled him in close to keep him from getting blown away.
When Katara felt confident that she could hold her footing she started to increase her pace. She had to get to Aang and snap him out of this before something bad happened. The idea of all that power being unleashed on Toph was just… She stifled the thought. She wouldn't let it come to that.
"Aang! Aang!" she shouted, hoping it would be enough to get his attention. Having no such luck, she pressed on. She needed to get closer.
Meanwhile, Toph finally recovered from the blow she suffered a minute before, though her shoulders were aching badly and her left cheek burned from where it scraped against the ground. She staggered to her feet, struggling to keep her balance as her hair and clothes whipped around wildly in the wind. She couldn't delay for too long, though, or she'd just end up flat on her face again. But before she could get moving, her attention was again divided by a set of footsteps approaching nearby.
"What the heck do you think you're doing out here?!" she scolded. "Get back!"
"I have to get to Aang!" Katara replied. "I'm the only one who can stop him!"
"You dummy! Get out of here! It's too- Huugh!"
The blind girl's words were abruptly cut short by a column of rock jutting up from below, brutally slamming into her stomach and then retreating back into the earth. Her eyes widened in shock as the muscle-reflex instantly evacuated every trace of breath from her lungs, causing her to drop down on her hands and knees and vomit up a small mixture of saliva and stomach fluid, as well as a trace of blood. Her body heaved and gagged uncontrollably as it gasped, in vain, for air, desperate to replenish the lost oxygen. She couldn't inhale, she couldn't even exhale; it was like she was drowning on dry land.
After a brief pause, another small pillar shot up and plowed into her side, sending her already battered body tumbling another several feet across the ground.
"No! Toph!" Katara exclaimed as her friend collapsed. She then turned back to Aang, who was still surrounded by a whirlwind of dirt and debris. "Aang! Aang, stop!" she cried, her heart racing. "Stop it! Please, I…I…" She hesitated, trying to find something, anything she could say to make him stop. In the heat of the moment, there was only one thing that came to mind. "I love her!"
"I love her!"
Suddenly the hard expression on the Avatar's face softened, and the angry look in his eyes began to fade.
"I love her…"
The words echoed in the boy's mind, piercing deep and awakening the part of him – the real him – that had fallen into unconsciousness, throwing it back to the forefront. His eyelids closed and fluttered as the world rushed back to him, and then snapped open again. All at once, the intense white glow emanating from his eyes and tattoos vanished, and everything fell still.
Aang stood and stared down at his trembling hands, breathing heavily. He blinked and looked around in earnest, rapt with confusion as he tried to recall what just happened. How…how was he standing? The last thing he remembered he was lying facedown on the ground, completely exhausted and in so much pain that he could hardly move. Now those symptoms felt like little more than a dull aching and a shortage of breath. It was only after his weary gaze found Toph in the distance that he had any inkling as to why.
A second later he spotted Katara rushing towards her, frantically calling her name. The scene immediately sent a sharp chill down the young airbender's spine. "What did I do…?"
Katara promptly knelt down by her friend's side, asking repeatedly if the younger girl was okay. She started to panic when there was no response, and quickly put her hand on the girl's shoulder and shook her lightly, greatly relieved by the soft coughing sounds that followed. She hurried to reposition herself and gently rolled Toph onto her back, carefully resting the earthbender's head in her lap.
The blind girl's eyelids fluttered slightly, trying to open. She moaned softly in an attempt to speak only to feel a spike of pain shoot through her chest, rewarding her efforts with nothing but another series of dry, feeble coughs. Her breathing was still too weak; she just didn't have any strength left. She was so tired.
"Shhh… Don't try to talk," Katara said in a soothing tone, smiling down and tenderly stroking her friend's cheek as a misty tear formed in her eyes. "It's okay, it's over. It's all over now."
Toph's body grew tense and she released another quiet moan. She thought she heard something for a second…a voice. It was trying to tell her…something, but she couldn't make it out. All the words seemed to run together. There was no harshness, though. The voice was soft…relaxing, a little like the feathery sensation that she felt on her cheek. She wondered briefly what it could be, but simply didn't have the energy left to think clearly.
Sleep beckoned her. It was a strange feeling, but nice…so warm and inviting. She had neither the will nor desire to fight it, and soon faded away into the waiting slumber.
"Toph! Katara!" Sokka yelled, finally making his way out to the girls' side. He stopped and stood next to them, looking down with concern at the young earthbender resting in his sister lap. He nearly froze when he noticed she wasn't moving. "Is…is she…?"
"She'll be alright. She's unconscious," Katara assured him, visibly lifting the weight off his shoulders. "She just needs to rest," she added, before leaning forward and kissing Toph lightly on the nose.
Sokka winced slightly, not quite sure how to react to the sight. As much as he didn't mind the idea of the two girls liking each other that way, it was still his little sister. Seeing her kissing someone was, well…weird. Not to mention how annoying it would get if her and Toph were always so lovey-dovey around each other now. He had to admit, this situation was going to take a little getting used to. On the bright side, if nothing else, he could always tease them about it.
"T-Toph…?" came Aang's timid voice, drawing the attention of two people he hoped were still his friends. He took a cautious step towards them as his eyes drifted up to meet Katara's, who lowered her head and looked away only a moment later. His heart sank. "Katara, I…"
"Back off!" Sokka barked suddenly, jumping in and positioning himself between his sister and the Avatar. "Katara was right, I never should've let you go through with this! Look at what you did! You hurt Toph!"
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I don't…I didn't mean for things to go this far." He looked desperately into the older boy's eyes, which glared back at him furiously. He stepped forward again, still trying to plead his case. "Please, you have to believe me! I-"
"I said stay back!" the warrior demanded, taking a defensive stance as he clutched the boomerang in the holster on his back. "Don't you go anywhere near them!"
Aang stopped in his tracks upon seeing Sokka's hostile reaction, water forming in his eyes as he slowly staggered back. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, overcome with sorrow, then turned and ran. He extended his arm out to his side and whipped up a cushion of air underneath his airbending staff, which had been discarded earlier, pulling it back to him. Without a moment's hesitation, he extended the wings of the glider and took off towards the northern sky even as the tears ran down his face.