A/N: This story picks up after EIP. I've had this idea for some months now and it will not leave me alone so, here I am. Before we get started though, I want to establish some ground rules.
1. Unlike my other stories, this one is NOT complete, which means updates will probably take a little longer. (Despite that, however, I have this story completely outlined and know exactly how I want it to end.)
2. In accord with that, both Taang and Kataang will be featured prominently in this story. However, I'm not going to tell anyone how it will end. You either read it blind and enjoy the story for what it is, or don't. It's your choice.
3. Just because this is a Taang fic, that does not mean that Zutara is lurking around the corner. It is not and it will not be featured in this story.
If the above stipulations are acceptable to you, read on and I hope you enjoy my very first ever Taang fic.
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar or the characters within this story, so Mike...Bryan, don't sue me. That is all.
"Are you crying?"
The sound of the pounding surf almost drowned out her question. Aang wasn't crying, but he sure did feel like doing so. He didn't suppose he needed to tell Toph that, however. She seemed to have a knack for sensing such things just as he had sensed her approach from behind. Even with only the pale moonlight as illumination on the lonely beach, he could still discern the lines of her diminutive frame with stunning clarity. He counted every footstep, even as they were muffled by the sand. Aang had learned a long time ago to wait and listen. She had taught him that. She had taught him well.
Aang wished now that she had a lesson for dealing with the crushing uncertainty that was now threatening to suffocate him. He wished she had a solution for calming the gripping panic that had suddenly begun unfurling in his chest. Following that horrible play, Aang had come out to the beach and sat along the water's edge in hopes of gaining some perspective. He had gained nothing more than the salty spray of the tide and more twisting confusion as the night lengthened.
His thoughts were a bewildering jumble. He worried about what he would do when he finally faced Firelord Ozai. He wondered if he was truly ready for the task ahead of him. He feared, more than anything, that he would fail. That was not an option at all. He had already fallen too many times to recall. He couldn't afford to make another costly mistake. The world couldn't afford it.
"I bet you're wishing you could just run away, aren't you?" Toph wondered aloud, briefly placing a hand on his bare shoulder before folding down beside him on the damp sand.
Aang spared her with a cursory glance before returning his gaze to the tide. "It's crossed my mind," he admitted.
Toph responded to that with a terse snort. "Oh, stop being such a baby!" she ordered, the underlying affection in her tone softening the harshness of her words. "You're taking that play too seriously, Aang. You all are. None of those people know what you've gone through to make it to this point. Who cares what they think?"
"That's easy for you to say, Toph," Aang replied sullenly. "You weren't the one being portrayed as some silly, irresponsible child. That was me." He sighed, his shoulders slumping forward in heavy defeat. "I don't know…maybe I am a silly, irresponsible child. Maybe I'm not ready for any of this. Maybe I never will be."
"Is this 'angst on Toph's shoulder' day or something?" she asked with some irritation. "Sheesh. First Zuko and now you. Just get over yourself, Twinkle Toes. You're the Avatar, so just suck it up because that's not going to change anytime soon."
"Wow…way to feel my pain there, Toph."
"For crying out loud, Aang, strap on a pair!" she groaned. "Stop being like this! You always give your best and you know it! We know it. You keep pushing yourself even when the outcome looks bleak. In the end, that's all you can do."
Aang scooped up a handful of sand and bended a controlled breeze to blow the grains in steady formation into the foamy crowns of the incoming waves. "It's not enough to do my best, Toph," he sighed. "I can't afford to lose this time. But then…I don't know if I have what it takes to win."
"You've been training night and day," Toph reasoned. "You have all four bending elements on your side now. You're dedicated and versatile. What more do you need?"
"It's not that," he mumbled with a shake of his head. "I guess I'm afraid. I'm afraid of what I may have to do to end this war. I'm afraid of compromising myself."
"Compromising yourself?" Toph echoed blankly.
"I've already lost so much already," Aang considered, trying not to think of Katara and the last conversation between them as he said the words. "My childhood. My home. My people. I don't…I don't want to lose myself as well. Me…who I am at the core…that's all I have left."
"I don't think I understand what you're saying, Aang."
"Of course, you don't," Aang said, accepting and disappointed all at once, locked in his own personal torment. "I don't suppose most people would. After all, I'm the Avatar. I have a duty. Who cares what it cost, right?"
Toph sat there for a moment in pensive silence, wanting to so much to chase away the thread of defeat she heard in his voice. Somehow, she seriously doubted teasing him would help matters and neither would a glib dismissal of his feelings. She wondered briefly what Katara would do if she were there. The answer came to Toph almost instantly and, decision made, she leaned forward to do something heretofore unprecedented in the history of her friendship with Aang. She kissed him on cheek.
Unfortunately, her impulsive deed didn't have the reaction she expected. Aang responded as if she'd set him on fire. He touched the spot where she had kissed him, his eyes widened in an incredulous stare. "What was that?" Aang cried.
"I thought I'd try a change of pace," Toph replied with an unaffected shrug. "I don't know. It just seemed to me that you needed something more than my usual punch in the arm."
"So you kissed me?" Aang balked, half appalled and half...filled with another sudden emotion that he couldn't quite describe. The realization left him flustered and frowning.
"Eh…I guess I see your point," Toph decided capriciously, drawing back her fist to wallop him in the bicep with enough force to send him sprawling into the sand. "I should stick with what I know."
As she rolled to her feet, Aang continued to stare at her with a mixture of disbelief and surprise. For a moment, it seemed to him as if he were looking at Toph with new eyes, in a completely different light than he had before. "Work it out, Twinkle Toes," Toph told him affectionately. "It just doesn't feel right when you're unhappy." Her voice lowered an octave, became almost gentle when she added, "I don't like it when you're unhappy."
Aang stared after her as she made her trek back towards the house, thoughtfully fingering the curious tingling in his cheek and hardly aware of the rhythmic throbbing in his arm at all.