All her years in the swamp had not brought Toph visions - not, that was, the kind that her friends had described to her, long ago, as they caught her up on their past adventures during their long days in the air. With the one-time exception of Korra, the only presences she ever encountered were the swampbenders, and they were tangible enough; if the smell wasn’t enough to prove that, the thuds of rock against flesh were. (And were they ever a whiny bunch. Really, she only hit them with a few small pebbles if they wandered into her stomping grounds. Practically a polite warning.)
Still, the stories remained in the back of her mind. So when, one muggy afternoon, a familiar figure fell into step beside her from nowhere, it was both a shock and almost expected.
“You aren’t real,” she grumbled, folding her arms. But spirits , it felt like him. She had once said that she would recognize his footsteps anywhere, and that was near the beginning of the many, many years she had spent acquainting herself with them. The feeling of him walking by her side was so ingrained in her body’s memory that not even the knowledge that he had been dead for over two decades could make it seem less natural.
There was a chuckle, and that, too, was unbearably familiar, as was the voice that followed. “No. I suppose I’m not.”
Unable to resist, Toph stopped, and the footsteps stopped too. She reached out to where his arm should have been, but instead of silky monk’s robes, her fingers found only humid air and a few hanging vines. She lowered her hand very slowly. She was given to understand that the owners of working eyes were used to them playing all kinds of tricks, but her earth-sight had never deceived her, and the conflict between that and her sense of touch was disorienting.
“Tell me, Toph,” said not-Aang. “Why are you seeing me?”
It was a dangerous question, one that she deflected with a huff. “I didn’t think spooky swamp visions were supposed to be so chatty.” Hadn’t Yue been the only one to actually speak, when her friends came here? And her, only a few words? It had been so long since she heard the story, she struggled to remember - Katara and Sokka’s stories, that was. She would never forget Aang explaining how he had seen her . But she, apparently, had only laughed.
Not-Aang shook his head, a gesture of fond exasperation. “Toph, you’ve always been spiritually sensitive, not that you ever paid much attention. Do you think just anyone could have connected to the vines in this swamp like you have? Or recognized Korra by sensing the Avatar spirit inside her?”
“Why are you here?” she snapped. “Just to haunt me with more of your cosmic mumbo-jumbo from beyond the grave?”
She knew, of course. But habit, fossilized into instinct, dictated that there were things she could not even allow herself to think about in his presence, as if he could read her thoughts if she let them become too clear to herself. For once, she applied her natural grit not to speaking uncomfortable truths but to keeping an impenetrable silence. In time, she struggled to bring her stifled feelings to light again, and learned to examine them sidelong, indirectly - guilty secrets that the deepest part of her mind wanted to keep from the rest, as well as from the outside world. More often than not, said secrets exerted their influence in the form of irritability.
(But she didn’t like to think about that, either - about how, even as she learned to moderate her bluntness when necessary, she still found herself stinging him with her words when she didn’t want to, and how they spent his last few years bickering almost every time they saw each other.)
“You tell me,” he said, soft but firm. “Why am I here? Not your parents. Not our friends. Not the fathers of your daughters. Why me?”
He had lived and died without knowing, she reminded herself; nothing she said now would change that. But the old familiar patterns of concealment and defensiveness proved too powerful to overcome. Even to form an answer in her own mind. Even when his tone and the pointedness of his questions made it clear he didn’t need her to say a word. She turned away. “Don’t ask me that,” she said gruffly.
“I’m not Aang, remember?” he answered. “This is the spirit of this place responding to your spirit. I already know.”
His hand settled on her shoulder. Solid and warm, just for an instant, but even as Toph’s head snapped round, it vanished again, along with the sense of his weight on the earth. She was alone again.
A badger-frog croaked in a nearby puddle. She folded her arms and glared in its general direction. “You’re not hearing anything from me,” she said sternly. Not that it could get back to Katara from here, anyway, but Toph had held her peace on the matter for more than half a century, and if there was one thing she had always been, it was stubborn. Not, however, too stubborn to let a few tears go as she made her way back toward home.