Leaving Things Behind Us by Lady Cleo
Chapter 8 - Task Twenty-One
The Time: One year and five months since Aang's departure.
The Place: Somewhere South of Omashu.
"You don't understand sacrifice."
Aang's head whipped up to stare at the elder man. "What do you mean, Master Roku?"
Pressing his palms together, the former Avatar frowned. "To sacrifice means to give up something valued. Tell me, Aang, have you sacrificed?"
Aang exhaled, focusing his mind as a flood of memories invaded his thoughts, "Yes."
The thin drawn lips of Roku pressed together. "An Avatar must understand the limits of his sacrifices, what he can do and what he can't do. He must ask himself whether it is a personal sacrifice or if it will serve the greater good of the world. There are lines that separate our deeds from personal and worldly, but lines can blur and sometimes we act solely on our own desires. In my lifetime, I often distorted personal and worldly desires." A wave of his hand produced a blue thread and an orange thread. "You once let your own desires stand in your way."
Aang blushed. "I don't understand why it's wrong for us to act on our own desires. Don't we deserve a measure of happiness?"
"Of course we do, but the key is balance," Roku explained. Aang furrowed his forehead, trying to grasp the meaning of the conversation. "You have been blessed, often when sacrifice was demanded, fate intervened. As you step out of youth there will be fewer interventions and harder choices."
"This task I send you on is no light one. A serpent-bull kills with one swipe of his venomous horns. There is no cure for his poison." The former avatar stared down at his protégé, his tone hard and comfortless. "South of Omashu a serpent-bull is loose, his spirit tainted by dark matter. You must either kill him or remove the horns."
Aang hesitated, "I understand."
"There is no easy solution to this problem." The blue thread vanished and Roku waved his hand again, this time producing a green thread. "I foresee a change in the threads. Be on your guard, Aang, the world will test your balance." Roku placed the orange thread next to the green, "I fear you will be asked to make a sacrifice."
Aang leapt. From his palms a blast of air shot across the ravaged clearing at the towering, raging bull with serpent eyes. The creature bellowed, spilt tail flicking as he dug massive cloven hooves in the dirt.
On the ground Toph took a sharp breath, her stance ridged. The bull lunged forward. A massive wall of earth shot up, blocking the creature. Aang soared through the air, pulling a giant loop of water from the river. The bull lunged forward again, all his weight thrown against the earthen wall. The water rope sailed wide. Aang grabbed another lope of water, shooting it out after the first. One after the other, the rings of water flew about the creature's head. "Now, Toph."
The wall before Toph broke down. The creature stumbled, startled. Toph pulled back and shifted forward; a massive wave of earth launched forward. Like a creeping vine, the earth bent up around the struggling bull, locking his feet in place.
"Cut them now, Twinkle Toes."
Aang loosened the water rope and yanked from the water again; a water blade slicing towards the snorting creature's head. The bull sensed the slack and wrenched hard, the force of the motion knocking Aang into the trees. Toph winced and tightened her grip, her energy focused on keeping the creature locked in. Pulling from within herself she pushed at the earth again and again. The creeping tendrils of earth working slowly up along the bull's body.
The bull snorted in panic, tossing his head back and baying in anger. He surged forward. The horned head rocked violently, nostrils flaring. Fighting with all his strength as he tried to pull himself from the ground. The dirt cracked. Toph leapt back the earth shackles disintegrated as the lithe earthbender rolled for cover. The head swung for her, Toph gasped, flinching as the horn swiped into her side.
A burst of flame shot through the air. The silt eyes turned away and the bull leapt towards Aang, head lowering as he charged. Leaping back to her feet, Toph sent off a volley of boulders towards the now free and rampaging creature. The strike startled the creature, knocking him to the ground for only a second before the massive seething beast was back on his feet.
Aang pulled his arms back, building up a massive surge of water behind him he thrust it forward. The bull turned, charging head first into the bushes as the wave of water crashed after him. Silence settled over the ravaged clearing, Aang dropped his hands to his knees and took a deep breath. "We're going to have to rethink the plan," he sighed and turned back to Toph. The earthbender nodded in agreement and took a step towards him. She stumbled abruptly, catching herself. "Toph?"
"I'm fine, Twinkle Toes," she began, her breathing a little shallower than normal. "He just swiped my side." Removing her hand she revealed a small slit on her right side, the shirt torn, but the skin just barely broken.
All the color drained from Aang's face, "The horns are poisonous." Shooting over to the earthbender, Aang wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"I don't need to hear it again, Twinkle," Toph interrupted, shrugging his arm off. "It was just a little swipe." The earthbender turned away from Aang and took a step. Her right knee caved beneath her, forcing Aang to leap forward to catch her. "Geez, I'm fine Twinkle Toes, just a little dizzy."
"You don't look fine," Aang murmured, his hand coming up to press against her forehead. He glanced down at the wound again, a small bruise had formed around the slit in the skin. "We need to get you to a healer." Keeping an arm around her waist to help support the pale girl, Aang started forward.
Toph took no more than a step. Knees collapsing she fell against him. "Yeah, no, not walking anywhere, Twinkle," she tried to kid then took a nervous deep breath, her hands hanging desperately onto him for stability. "Just give me a minute to get my balance."
"Alright," Aang answered as he glanced back down at the wound, a hand lifting to push the shirt away. The bruise had grown five times its original size, encompassing her entire right side. Heart pounding in his chest, Aang swept the startled Toph off her feet.
"What do you think you're doing, Twinkle?" Ignoring her comment he raced for the river, mind frantically trying to work. Her skin already felt clammy, beads of sweat pouring down her forehead. "Really, Twinkle, I'm fine," Toph assured, her voice an octave lower than normal, her grip on him tightening. "Do I need to define dizzy for you?"
Leaping over a log, Aang landed on the banks of the river and splashed down into the currents. "I need to clear your system," he explained as he carefully submerged her lower half. Stomach twisting in sheer panic, he ran his hands over her body.
Toph was trembling uncontrollably, hands fisted onto him. "You can't water heal," she began. Her nails dug into his skin, her back arching as a violent cough interrupted her words. Regaining control of her lungs, Toph leaned her head back, breathing raggedly as she conceded, "Okay, not feeling so good now."
Focusing all his energy on the small girl, Aang closed his eyes and tried to picture her chi, her energy, the flow of her blood. It took a second for the picture to form in his head, but form it did. Running his hands carefully over her, he worked his way through her system and towards the wound. Her aura was a diminished green, almost sickly, and the feel of it was heavy and weighted. He carefully moved his hands over the wound. The pit of his stomach sank in fear, the black aura of the poison infecting her body at an alarming rate.
"Aang, I can't, I-" Toph coughed violently, her skin felt hot despite the churning water. Her eyes rolled back into her head, her grip falling away from him.
"No-" Shifting his hands, Aang pressed them down on her heart, trying to shield the organ from the approaching poison. He could sense the black aura spreading towards her lungs, seeping through her body. "No, just a second more-"
It was warm, like someone had enveloped Toph in a giant blanket. The pain in her side was gone, the choking sensation in her lungs had also vanished, but her senses were lacking. Still she felt secure in her place, almost as if something warm and loving was holding her. The feeling reminded her of the badger-moles; comforting and protecting, guiding her.
"You realize the implication of your actions." A shudder ran up Toph's spine as the disembodied voice startled her. She wrapped her arms around herself, curling tightly into a ball. The soft comforting presence seemed a little more distant suddenly.
A second voice suddenly chimed in, "I just need a second, and I'm willing to pay for it." There was an underlying note of panic in this voice, but it seemed the soothe Toph's worries away. "I know it's possible, I've asked you before, and you granted it."
"Your time has already been shortened by your suspension. You will be giving more than you realize."
"I know the consequences." The second voice answered the first, desperation mingling with stubborn pride.
A cold vibe was creeping though Toph's legs. Her toes felt numb, as though someone had submerged them in ice water.
"This is no little matter," the disembodied voice explained, a strong note of disapproval present, "and I will grant this only once. There will be others who need this time, perhaps some more deserving."
"I would rather die then fail at this." Toph startled, the voice now taking on a distinctly Aang quality.
"If you are sure-"
Toph felt a sharp shooting pain in her right side, her heart skipped a beat and constricted painfully.
"I have never been so sure of anything."
Cold air blasted Toph's lungs. A thousand shooting sensations shot through her body as the comforting presence vanished. Everything was fuzzy, her senses lost, energy sapped as if someone had stolen her bending. Sensations bombarded her: night crickets chirping, wind through the leaves, rushing water, warmth on her skin, pain itching her side, head throbbing, lungs screaming, heart pounding, Aang talking. She swirled through the senses trying desperate to grasp at one when everything suddenly stopped.
The night crickets were still chirping as Toph floated slowly back to conciseness. A heavy weight held her down, but with every breath she took it seemed to lighten. Warmth radiated to her right and she could feel the weight of a blanket pressed around her. Her head was resting on something warm and soft.
Toph took another breath, the pain in her chest lessening with each added inhale. A soft pressure hovered over her heart and forehead, keeping her still. She felt almost nothing of the ground beneath her, but was sure of its presence supporting her. Toph moved a foot, pain shooting along hers muscles and through her body. Her right side was throbbing in protest, but she pressed her foot flat against the ground. Concentrating, she tried to send a soft vibration out. Nothing happened at first. Panic seized her, but she tried again. This time a soft, weak vibration rippled through the area. It traveled only a few meters around her, but it was just enough to see.
She was lying next to their campsite, her head resting in Aang's lap, one of his hands resting protectively over her heart while the other covered her forehead. His energy levels were low, as if in deep meditation. "You need to sleep." Aang's voice startled her. "You've been through a lot and your body needs to recover." It was less of a suggestion and more of a command.
Toph parted her lips in an attempt to speak, but nothing seemed to come out. She swallowed; an action as painful as drinking a bucket of fire water, and tried again. "What-"
Aang moved his hands away. Toph caught the sound of water as his fingertips pressed into the side of her head. She felt her body relax, sleep weighing down her eye lids before sending her spiraling back into the warmth of unconsciousness.
Morning birds chirping woke Toph from her heavy sleep, her senses creeping back. She still felt weak, like she was recharging. And she still couldn't sense the movement around her, but something told her not to panic. She pressed her foot to the ground, ignoring her protesting limbs, and sent out a tremor. It was a little stronger than last nights, giving her a little more sense.
Aang knelt beside her, warm hand pressing down on her heart as if checking on its condition. "How are you feeling?" Toph groaned in response, her body protesting every little move as she tried to sit up. Aang easily pressed her back down. "You need to rest."
"What happened?" her voice sounded raspy from dis-use.
"You tried to define poison as a dizzy spell," he joked, though the usual hint of cheerfulness was lacking. "Try not to get the two confused in the future."
"No problem, Twinkle." A cough was building up in her chest, her lungs rebelling at the idea of speaking.
His hands moved to her side, soft fingertips pulling at the material of her shirt. "I need to check the puncture wound, this might hurt a little," Aang warned. Toph would have nodded, but found staying still was an easier option. She felt his warm fingertips trace a large circle in her side and winced. "You should see the size of this bruise, the bull barely broke the skin, but your entire right side looks like someone took a mallet to it."
"That's alright, Twinkle," she choked out, wincing as his warm fingers continued to circle the sore area. "I can feel it."
Aang withdrew his hand. "I don't want to heal it yet, you're too weak. You need to sleep some more," he started to pull back. "I'll be back before you wake up."
Everything in her body agreed with Aang's statement, but Toph's mind was clearing and the statement didn't sit right. "Back- where?" she questioned, her hand wrapping around his arm.
"I'm going to go take care of the serpent-bull."
"What?" Toph fought to pull herself up, body now absolutely screaming at the prospect of moving, but her mind unwilling to give into the battle. "You can't-" His fingertips pressed into her head, the soothing sound of water pulling her back into unconsciousness.
The shirt dropped to the ground, startling Toph awake. The fire was roaring to her left, a sure sign her senses were improving, allowing her to feel the seismic activity around her without the need of induced vibration. Aang was standing a few feet away from her, removing his boots as he faced the fire. The smell of something sweet filled her nose and prompted a growl from her stomach. Sluggishly, she pushed herself into a sitting position, her side screaming with every inch.
"Hey," Aang greeted cheerfully. Moving forward he grabbed a bowl and filled it with the sweet smelling stuff, before walking it over to hand to her. "Eat up. You've been sleeping for the past three days, must be starving."
Toph accepted the bowl, taking a ginger bite of its contents. It felt gooey, like a congee, but warm and sweet. She took another bite, still feeling disoriented and sore, her limbs unwilling to cooperate at first.
Aang moved around the campsite, packing things up for travel. "How are you feeling?" he questioned.
"Weak." She cleared her throat, and took another bite to sooth her aching muscles. "Even my bending feels sapped."
"I would be surprised if it didn't." Aang paused in his movements. "The poison invaded almost all of your senses, take it slow. You do too much and you'll end up taking another three day nap." He resumed his packing, bouncing around the camp. Toph turned her attention back to the bowl and took another bite. Her side was still throbbing, but his comment made her curious and she sent a slight tremor out, testing the range of her abilities and senses.
Toph paused. Something didn't feel right; to be more precise he didn't feel right. A frown creased Toph's face and she shook her head to clear her thoughts. She sent a second vibe out towards the airbender; the bowl dropped, her hands trembling. "What did you do?" Toph demanded. Fighting down a surge of panic, she struggled to push herself to her feet. Muscles refused to cooperate and Toph stumbled. Aang leapt over, catching the earthbender as she teetered precariously close to the fire.
"Don't take it so fast, your still recovering from the-" Aang stopped. In his bid to catch her, one of her hands had planted against his bare chest, over his heart. He moved to pull her hand away, but Toph blocked it.
Imprinted over the bird-like heart Toph felt a fresh scar. It was small; maybe only the size of two fingers. She ran her fingers over it, tracing the edges; a swirl surrounded by a rough shape, sitting on a base. A pattern she had known all her life. The earthbending symbol. "What did you do?"
Aang pulled her fingers away. "Calm down."
"You did something." Her side was screaming in pain with every movement as she clung to him for support, wobbling on her own two legs. "Symbols don't just pop up randomly on your chest, what did you do?" she demanded angrily.
"It's not what you think." Aang defended. "You're still not feeling well. I didn't let you sleep long enough." He dropped her hands, moving his own up to press against her head.
Toph knocked his fingers away from her forehead, "No, you did something stupid, something stupid for me- take it back." She pushed away from him. The force of her movement sent her teetering on unsteady legs, world spinning again as her equilibrium decided to take another vacation. The congee seemed about to come back up.
Aang caught her, his arms wrapping around her waist as she fell against his chest. Everything suddenly just stopped.
"She'll be fine." The unfamiliar voice shook Toph awake. Beneath her she felt the soft contours of a bed, warm covers pulled up to her chin. The musky smell of cabbages and old men invaded her sense- Omashu. "You healed her well, another few days of rest and I think she'll be capable of travel." Toph kept her eyes closed, feigning sleep as she listened to the man and boy standing by her bed. The healer paused and seemed to take a moment to think. "Forgive me, but I must ask how you did it?"
"I- I blocked the poison from her heart," Aang hesitated, "and then flushed her system using waterbending."
"It makes no sense, so many have tried exactly the same thing and failed. I don't understand how."
"I don't know," Aang tentatively answered. "But I do know I won't be able to do it again."
"An Avatar thing perhaps," disappointment laced the physician's voice. "I'll be back in the morning to check on her. Until then, goodnight." The quick recession of steps and the closing of a door followed. Aang stayed quiet for a long time, his breathing even. For a second it seemed as though he might follow the doctor out, when the bed shifted under added weight and a hand fell flat against her heart.
Toph moved, opening her eyes and lifting her own hand to cover his. "I'm fine, Twinkles Toes. Not going anywhere anytime soon."
"Good." She could hear Aang smile as he pulled himself onto the bed and stretched out beside her. His arm slipped underneath her shoulder, carefully pulling her weight against him. "I think it's my turn to sleep." Silence fell over the pair, but sleep did not seem to come. Without thinking, Toph moved her hand up to rest over his heart. She couldn't feel the scar, the material of his shirt masking it, but she knew it was still there.
Aang grabbing her hand and pulled it away, "I had to, Toph, I had to."
"Had to what?" she questioned.
A warm hand snaked around her back as Aang turned towards her, body entwining with hers. The action sent a shiver of pain down Toph's side, but she ignored it as he wrapped both arms protectively around her, his head resting on top of hers. "I couldn't keep the poison from your heart, so I gave you a piece of mine."
Her hand grabbed a fistful of his shirt, and she felt his heart pick up pace. "What does it mean?"
"I don't know."
"You're lying, Twinkle Toes, I can feel it." Toph started to pull away from him, but he held her in place. "Tell me, Aang."
"One of my past lives sacrificed a piece of his heart to save someone. I- I don't know the details, but I know the consequences. By giving you a piece of my heart, even for that short time, I've taken a few years off my own life." Toph took a deep breath in response to his words and pressed her face into Aang's chest, her mind trying to wrap around the comment. "It's not as bad as it sounds," Aang hastily added, "A few years off mine so you can live 80 years more."
"I-" For the first time in her life, words failed Toph.
"I couldn't loss you." Aang whispered, "I knew the consequences of my actions, if that's the cost I have to pay, I'll take it. I world rather die in a world with you then live in one without you. So, just trust me, Toph. Please just trust me."
"I trust you." Her fingers unclenched from his shirt and she let her eyes close. Her heart skipped a beat as a conflict of emotions played through her head. "I've always trusted you, Twinkle Toes. But I honestly don't know-"
Aang's grip tightened to the point of almost painful, "Then don't, just don't." He pressed a soft lingering kiss on the top of her head. "Just trust me."
"Did you know?"
"I don't see the future, Aang," Roku frowned as he glanced down at the knotted orange and green threads. "Though I feared it would come to this." He turned to the waiting young Avatar and offered the threads forward. "You've made a choice that cannot be reversed and it may come back to haunt you."
Aang took the offered threads and stared down at the knotted strands. "I will never regret my sacrifice for Toph."
I like this chapter, which could be a bad omen for it (me like = others tend to dislike). I'm not the best at action, but I certainly did my best to paint the picture, hopefully it rings true. Next chapter may be delayed a bit. I'm working on a one shot that I would really like to finish first.
Next Chapter - Katara final speaks about her feelings for Aang, only it's at the wrong time to the wrong person.