Aang catches her, finally, and chooses not to cushion their fall with any air, letting their bodies tumble into the damp earth instead. He hits the ground first, hands pinned against her back to keep her from jostling too much.
“Rematch,” his wife demands. “You weren’t supposed to use any bending!”
“You had an advantage! You’re always using seismic sense, so it’s impossible to sneak up on you, Toph.”
“This is the Earth Rumble all over again. Chase me again, you filthy little cheater.”
“It feels like I’ll always be chasing you,” he murmurs, his lips brushing the wisps of hair over her temple. He closes his eyes, basks in the bits of sunlight peeking through the plethora of trees above them. “I’ll catch you every once in a while, but I never get to keep you.”
He’s always going to be that twelve-year-old boy running after a pretty girl who won’t wait for him, her laughter taunting him—
“Thanks for killing the mood, Twinkletoes,” Toph retorts, punching him in the chest.
A thread of panic bursts inside of him because that punch had felt like nothing – like she’s made of air – so he desperately grabs her retreating fist and tucks it over his heart. She sighs like she’s both exasperated and in love with him, and it’s so familiar that when he blinks rapidly against the burning sensation behind his eyes, there’s already dew dotted along his lashes.
Toph snuggles into him, coiling the fingers from her other hand around Aang’s forearm. “Where are the boys?”
“With their grandparents.”
Her nose wrinkles. “You left them with my mom and dad?”
“They’re not that bad,” Aang smiles, small. “Your parents have been really helpful with watching them.”
“Fine,” Toph rolls her eyes. “Did Tenzin start bending anything yet? Please tell me he’s an earthbender.”
“Sorry, Sifu T,” comes his reply, and an involuntary laugh is yanked out of him when she starts cursing up a storm. “He sneezed the other day and shot six feet into the air. We have another airbender.”
“You’re telling me none of our kids are earthbenders. Absolutely none? That’s just fucking wrong.”
Aang turns, keeping her palm close to his chest as he drops his forehead against hers. “We only have two,” he whispers softly, pressing a soft kiss to the space between her dark brows. “I think our next kid would have been an earthbender. She would have been a girl too – strong and beautiful just like her mother.”
“You think I would’ve kept popping out babies for you?” she throws back with a scoff. “You try giving birth and see how that shit feels.” Mild pause. “I guess you’re right though. A girl would have been nice.”
The weight of her against him starts to fade at a frightening pace, which means he doesn’t have much time with her left.
A chasm lies in his chest, poisoned and concave, and the longer he lives and exists without Toph, the harder the abyss inside him threatens to swallow him whole. It’s an exhausing kind of pain that sleep and meditation cannot ease away. It languishes his body and runs his blood cold; it has him shaking with tears at night until all of it is slowly weaned from his body.
“I don’t want to go back,” Aang says helplessly against the arch of her throat, gripping onto the indents of her hips. “Please don’t make me leave. Don’t make me leave you.”
“If you leave our kids fatherless, I will claw my way out from the grave and bury you until you’re a thousand feet under.”
Aang chuckles wetly. “I would never do that to Gyatso and Tenzin. Not intentionally.”
He doesn’t have a choice anyway.
The Avatar doesn’t get to stop just because the love of his life is gone. He doesn’t get to weep over the fact that they should have gotten so many more decades together, that she was supposed to keep insulting him and loving him until they were old and withered.
Some days, Aang believes he doesn’t want to live in a world where she’s no longer in it. He doesn’t want to move on from her, to wake up one day years from now and think it’s okay that she’s not by his side anymore. She’d been his home for the longest while and now that she’s gone, he’s been rendered homeless and lost for the second time in his entire life.
But he never tells Toph any of these things.
It would upset her, Aang thinks, even if she’s just a wispy silhouette in his arms at this point.
He holds Toph until her spirit disappears with one last laugh that makes him feel like a kid again. He contemplates searching for her, like he’d done the years before, but he knows he won’t find her again. As much as he hates the significance of this day – hates it so much – it’s the only day where she comes back to him.
(“Toph,” he rasps out shakily, the world around them falling silent. “Toph. Try to stay awake, please, please, Katara’s coming—”
He’s not a healer – he doesn’t have Katara’s gifts – but he presses water-gloved hands to the open wound in her chest anyway, willing it to do anything. Under his ministrations, the bleeding doesn’t stop and his breath hitches frantically in his throat.
A hand touches his cheek, trembling with the effort of keeping it pressed there. “Aang.”
“No,” Aang chokes, distraught. “Toph, no—”
“I was supposed to watch the kids today,” she murmurs, so, so quiet, her chest stuttering. “You had that meeting with—”
“Fuck the meeting,” Aang cuts her off. “You’re – you’re going to be okay. We’re going to go home after this and when you finish healing, we’ll leave Republic City for a while – just you, me, Gyatso and Tenzin. You always said you wanted to travel again, so why not start now? We’ll go anywhere you want, I promise.”
Toph’s smile is tiny and exhausted, and his vision of her begins to blur all around. “Tell the boys that I love them. T-That they’re my favorite people in the entire world. I know Tenzin’s still young and he probably won’t – he won’t remember me, but tell hi—”
“He will remember you because you’ll be telling that to him yourself.”
“Appa and Momo too. Tell them they’re good boys.”
The water is useless, so he tosses it to the side. When he feels Toph’s hand slipping from his face, Aang folds his hand over hers and shifts his head to kiss her palm desperately. Toph makes eye contact with him for once and even if she can’t see him, her gaze makes him crumple over her like a broken puppet, a shuddering sob leaving him.
“Stay with me,” Aang begs, his brow rested against hers. “I can’t do any of this without you. Please, Toph.”
Toph inhales quickly. “I love you, Twinkle—”
And she stills in his arms completely, leaving him, her last breath wasted on trying to finish the rest of his nickname.)
It’s sunset when Aang leaves the swamp, head bowed down to a grief that’s become a second layer of skin on him.
He’s surprised to find his friends surrounding the area where he’d left Appa outside.
“You come here every year,” Katara points out gently, immediately pulling Aang into her arms and letting him lean against her. “It wasn’t that hard to find you, knowing that fact. Do you still see her?”
“It’s the only time I see her,” he replies, bending to press his wet cheek against her shoulder. “You guys didn’t have to come.”
A large palm on the space of his shoulders, pressing lightly. “Of course we did, buddy,” Sokka chimes in, his smile tweaked by sadness. “We didn’t want you to be alone. And we thought that...maybe you’d be open to a new tradition on this day?”
Aang lifts his head, wiping at his tears. “What is it?”
“You know the underground arena that still holds the Earth Rumble tournaments?” Katara asks, her eyes overly bright and averted from the swamp behind Aang, like she’s trying so very hard not look for flashes of a pale woman with a flying boar herself. “Zuko convinced the new owner to open it just for the five of us for the rest of the night. It was To— it was one of her favorite places.”
She struggles even now to say Toph’s name out loud, and Aang understands. After her passing, it had taken him two years to be able to say her name without falling apart.
“We could have our own Earth Rumble,” Sokka says, “but with, you know, all the elements, a boomerang and a couple of fans.”
“You’re forgetting about earth,” Aang replies, but he feels the corners of his mouth twitching upward against his will.
“There’s an easy fix for that! I’ll chuck rocks at you. Or maybe Suki will because she has better aim anyway.”
Suki sneaks in from the side, slipping a comforting arm around Aang’s waist. “Only if you want to do this, Aang. It’s okay if you don’t. None of us wanted to be alone today, really.”
The memory of Toph would be all over that underground arena and it would hurt still. Spirits, it would hurt so much. But it’s better than being alone.
He passes his gaze over to Zuko - who’s sitting on top of Appa’s head with the reins clutched tightly in his pale hands, who has his face turned away to hide his swollen eyes and blotchy cheeks, who had taken Toph’s death the hardest after Aang.
“I’d like to imagine that she’d be cheering us on from the other side while we all fight each other,” Suki adds, wistful. “And laughing when we get our asses kicked.”
Yes, Toph would do that.
“Okay,” Aang says on long exhale. “Let’s do it.”
Aang steps into the arena after the rest of them pile onto it and smiles tearfully at the worn earth beneath his bare feet—
(“Somebody’s a little light on his feet. What’s your fighting name - the Fancy Dancer?”)