Ye Chang Meng Duo: Chapter 10
Disclaimer: Nickelodeon (and all others) own "Avatar: The Last Airbender." I own whatever I write/create. Don't steal and don't sue.
A/N: This is a collaborative work between myself, and the artist Mag (fortheloveofpizza. Please make sure to visit Mag's deviantArt page for artwork that is, not so much inspired by this story, as the story is inspired by Mag's exceptional imagination. The title is Chinese for, "The longer the night lasts, the more our dreams will be."
"You're never going to come back, are you?" Aang, hand still closed around Appa's horn, turned to look over his shoulder. Katara stood just away from man and bison with her hands at her sides, her eyes shining in the dim twilight.
"After all of this, I don't really want to," he replied. "But you're still my family. I'll visit. Sometime." Appa grunted and tilted his head further to one side. Aang lifted his leg slowly, turning away from Katara when the ache in his barely healed ribs made him wince. He put his foot in the curve of Appa's horn, stepping up as Appa turned his head. Aang settled back against the arch of Appa's back, taking the bison's reins in hand and letting his legs stretch over Appa's head. The pain dulled, but did not vanish.
"Saying sorry doesn't work for anyone, does it?" Katara asked. Aang turned his head, looking at Katara with neither a smile nor a frown on his face. His eyes lingered, roaming from her hair to her eyes to her lips. His gaze settled on her bare neck, and he thought, for a moment, on how easy it had been to shatter the pendant that had been returned to him. She noticed where his eyes had stopped, and looked at the ground.
"No," he said. "Not for anyone." He turned away from her, his sigh too quiet to hear.
"Can I still say that I'm sorry?" Katara asked. "I never meant to hurt you like this." Aang was silent for a moment, watching the sea wash up orange as the sun sank toward the horizon.
"Why did you agree to marry me if you loved Toph?" he asked in return.
"Because I care about you both," Katara said. "I really do."
"But you love her more." Katara bit the inside of her cheek, and her sigh was audible.
"It's not like that," she murmured. "It's—different. I never lied when I said I love you." She looked up, but his eyes remained on the sea.
"It was a lie," he said. "I thought it really meant something, and it didn't." Katara's throat tightened, and she dropped her eyes to the ground once more when they began to burn.
"So—you hate us both now?" she asked, her voice cracking. Aang blinked slowly, turning his head to look at the woman on the ground.
"No," he replied. "I just can't be around you without wanting to break Toph's ribs again." He paused, a vague smile coming to his face. "It's not like a monk to think about violence so much."
"Are you always going to want to do that to her?" Katara asked.
"I don't know," Aang said. He shifted his legs, sinking lower into the natural cradle Appa's head and neck created. "It's all I want to do right now, though, so I'm not going to stay." He rearranged the reins in his hands, and Katara looked up at the sound of leather against fur and horn. She took a step forward, and Aang paused.
"I'm sorry, Aang," Katara said once more. She held up a hand, reaching toward him. "Please—it's the truth." Aang stared at her hand for a full minute before patting Appa's head. The bison turned and tilted carefully, and Aang was able to take Katara's hand in his.
"I know," he murmured. He kissed her fingertips before letting go of her hand. He settled back to dull the pain in his torso, and smiled at Katara. She smiled as well, though he could see the shine of tears in her eyes. Aang took a slow breath and shifted his grip on the reins.
"Goodbye, Katara," he said. She stepped back, head tilting forward.
"Goodbye, Aang." The man looked away from her and snapped the reins. Appa rose to his feet, tail patting the ground.
"Yip yip." Appa crouched down and leapt into the air, Katara closing her eyes against the gust of wind the bison's tail beat against the cobblestones of the courtyard. When the wind abated, Katara opened her eyes to watch Appa fly into the east, the white of his fur bright against the black-blue sky. His course did not veer, and Aang did not look back. Katara closed her eyes and laid her hands over them, pressing gently. She waited for a long while before all the tears in her eyes had gone.
The tension in the room was hardly overt, and limited only to rebukes that involved sticking out one's tongue. Sokka frowned across the table not at Hova, but at the raccoon-dog flopped over her lap.
"He's mocking me," the man grumbled. "Mocking me because he's got a bunch of people protecting him." Fai's tongue swiped across his muzzle before he tilted his head to one side. Sokka sat bolt upright, pointing at the raccoon-dog with a shout.
"See?" he said. "He's too smug for his own good!"
"You're not eating our pet," Kailas murmured.
"But he's so perfect for jerky!" Sokka insisted. "Look at him!"
"That's fur, not fat," Hova said. She scratched along Fai's back, fingertips vanishing in black and brown fluff. "You're not eating him." Sokka opened his mouth to speak, but only yelped when Suki slapped his shoulder. He turned to her, rubbing his shoulder, and jutted his lower lip out in a pout.
"This is why we don't have any children yet," Suki said to Hova and Kailas. "I'm scared he'll think they'll make good food." Hova and Kailas laughed aloud while Sokka sputtered, trying to protest. Suki smiled and kissed him, leaning against his shoulder after he quieted. As they continued to laugh and talk, Toph sat leaning against the nearest wall with a mug of tea in her hands.
She had not taken a sip of the liquid, now tepid and soon to grow cold. Instead, she had twisted and turned the mug, rolling it between her palms. She could not tap her toes against the floor, unwilling to bend her legs from where they lay straightened. She could not sigh as the minutes passed, unable to draw large enough breaths without her body's fierce protest. Toph simply sat and ignored her tea, all her focus aimed toward the doorway that Katara would return through.
Two days had passed since Katara's intervention and the end of the battle, and the hours immediately afterward Toph could only remember in a vague haze. She recalled being carried, gingerly, from the cave, and knew that she must have been brought to Katara's home. Beyond that, she had to be informed that Katara had healed her and Aang both. The pain that greeted her when she returned to full consciousness belied such facts.
It was Katara who had been beside her when she regained her senses half a day later, and although she did not ask after Aang, Katara had whispered that the man was leaving. The hitch in Katara's voice and the way she sat with her hands clenched tightly in her lap made Toph lift her arm despite the burn that blossomed in her muscles. She had reached for Katara's necklace, and still was unsure what she felt when her fingers came into contact with nothing more than Katara's bare skin.
Katara and Toph tried earnestly to talk to one another as the next day passed, but their efforts met with failure each time. The question of why was always what Katara put forward, and Toph was unable to produce a satisfactory answer. Even as she nursed Toph, amidst numerous protests, Katara continued to ask all the questions Toph did not want to answer.
"Why did you lie to me about Aang going toward the city?" she asked. Toph sighed, and reached to stop Katara from continuing on in needlessly tearing chunks out of a loaf of bread.
"I'm sorry," she said, giving her only reply to the question once more.
"Did you know he wanted to fight you?"
"I did." Katara sighed, letting go of the bread completely. Toph put it aside, leaning back upon the wall she had been propped against.
"Why did you agree?" she asked. "Did you think it was going to make me happy?"
"No," Toph said quietly. "I told him it wasn't going to."
"Then why did you fight him? You could have killed each other. You almost were." Katara's hand closed around Toph's, squeezing the other woman's fingers tightly.
"I'm sorry," Toph repeated. With her free hand, she touched Katara's cheek, her caresses gentle to keep her calluses from scraping. She could never find a smile in all those minutes of questions that managed to drag into hours, more often finding the still damp trails of the tears she heard in Katara's voice. The weariness that could not be dispelled by healing drew her to sleep often, though the ache that lingered brought her back into the waking world just as frequently. She could barely think of moving when two days had passed, but still took to her feet when Katara asked her if she wanted to speak to Aang before he departed.
It was many long, silent minutes before either of them had spoken, and they traded simultaneous, simple, and quiet goodbyes before Katara led Toph back inside from the courtyard. Toph was settled in the largest room with Suki, Sokka, Hova, and Kailas while Katara returned outside once more. Catching mere snippets of conversation that would have made her chuckle on another day, Toph sat with her tea growing unpleasantly cool and waited.
For all her concentration, she did not know which came first: the silencing of the conversation, or the vibration of Katara's footsteps in the earth. Her head only turned toward Katara as the other woman strode through the doorway, and she assumed the others did the same. In the quiet, Katara walked on and sat down between Toph and the others, sighing softly as she did.
"How—was he?" Suki asked.
"Fine," Katara murmured. She lifted one hand and rubbed at where the necklace had lain around her neck. Toph's hands tightened around her mug, eyes narrowing at her inability to sit up and place a hand on Katara's face.
"What did you say?" Sokka asked. Suki frowned at him, but the shake of Katara's head was enough to stop any reprimands.
"We said goodbye," she replied. She took another breath, but let it out in another sigh, shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head. She returned her hand to her lap and lifted her head. "So—what did I walk in on? You were telling Kailas something, Sokka."
"Oh!" Sokka said. He turned to Kailas, grinning broadly as he reached for his belt. "I wanted to ask if you'd ever been as far into the Earth Kingdom as the Si Wong Desert."
"No," Kailas replied. "I like not dying of thirst."
"Well, you wouldn't have died of thirst if you found what I did in the desert," Sokka said, lifting a small skin flask from his belt and holding it out. "Try this—it's great!" He yelped as Suki slapped his hand, dropping the flask to the floor.
"I told you to dump that cactus juice out before we left Kyoshi Island!" Suki said, ignoring Sokka's pout and tearful eyes. "Don't you dare try to give it to someone else!"
"You haven't given up cactus juice?" Katara asked.
"Hey, it's not like it's some weird addiction thing!" Sokka protested. "I just like it from time to time!" Katara giggled as he crossed his arms over his chest, shaking her head.
"Sokka, do you really want to give a firebender cactus juice?" Suki asked. Sokka paused, looking at Kailas as he thought. Despite the smile on her face, or because of it, he blanched and retied the flask to his belt.
"Yeah, you're probably good without it," he muttered.
"Do I want to know what would happen to Kailas if she drank that stuff?" Hova asked.
"You really don't," Katara and Suki replied in unison. Hova looked at Kailas, who continued to smile, before the two of them both began to laugh. Sokka's pout returned, arms crossing over his chest. Suki took pity on him and kissed it away, leaning against his shoulder when he smiled at her. Katara giggled, and Toph closed her mouth over the questions that had been building on her tongue at the sound.
She was unsure of how long it had been since she had last heard Katara's laugh, light and fluttering. It had been such a rare thing to hear that Toph listened as closely as she could. Seven years had stretched her memories thin with recall, and it made her chest tighten suddenly to think of another seven years without Katara. Toph bit her lip and put the mug aside, crossing her arms and resting them lightly on her stomach.
The thought of Aang left the bitter thoughts of pity and happiness she felt she did not deserve rolling in her mind. Without knowing entirely why, Toph wanted to know what more Katara and Aang had said to one another than mere farewells. She did not know what they had done, if anything, while they were outside, unable to focus on more than the doorway. In a small way, Toph was more than happy that she could not think of what might have occurred.
As more laughter swelled, slim fingertips closed around one of her hands. Toph blinked, thoughts forgotten, and Katara lifted the other woman's hand up. She drew it forward carefully, scooting closer to keep Toph from moving. Gently, she coaxed Toph to uncurl her fingers, and put Toph's hand on her face. Beneath her palm, Toph felt Katara's familiar smile. Her fingers found the smooth skin of Katara's cheek, without a trace of tears. Toph barely moved, breathed, or blinked, and Katara laughed quietly.
Just as carefully as before, Katara moved closer. She turned Toph's arm, laying it over her shoulders as she leaned gently against Toph's side. Toph blinked once more at the soft, content sigh Katara gave. The simple sound and the warmth nestled next to her made her eyes burn without warning even as a smile curled her lips. Toph tilted her head down, burying her face in Katara's hair. Tears came from her eyes and laughter from her throat, and she tightened her grip to still the sudden tremor in her hand.
"Toph?" Katara said quietly. Toph nodded slightly, humming her questioning reply in lieu of an unsteady voice. Katara's smile grew wider, and she squeezed Toph's hand. "If I give you my mother's necklace, will you wear it?"
"Will you wear a necklace that I make you?" Toph asked in return. Katara giggled, turning her head to press a kiss to Toph's cheek.
"Yes," she said.
"Then I will, too," Toph replied. She chuckled, tears still in her eyes, and Katara laughed as well. They sat together and laughed, even as tears began to well over in Katara's eyes. Toph held Katara close, and they let the tears run down their faces. What mattered to them at that moment was hearing the other's laughter, and holding one another close. Toph and Katara were happy, and that was all they cared to know.