"Ow! Toph!" Katara rubbed her sore shoulder with indignation, shooting dagger glares at her companion. "That's not...It's not funny!" She went back to her task of preparing a vegetable strew for dinner.
"Oh, come on, Sweetness, don't be such a baby." Toph crossed arms and pounded an impatient foot into the dirt. "I didn't hit ya that hard."
"You shouldn't hit me at all," Katara grumbled.
"If you feel that way, Sugar-Queen, why don't ya get a little dirty and fight back, huh? Put me in my place. I dare ya."
"Hmph." Katara's cheeks flushed pink as she turned away, hands on her hips.
"Come on, we both know you've got the stuff."
"You're so immature," Katara huffed. "Such a boy."
"It's so cute when ya get all worked up like that," Toph taunted, a mischievous grin spreading wide. He slapped a chunky hand swiftly across Katara's right buttock, chuckling as she flinched and squeaked in surprise. "I can see your heart skip a beat, ya know."
"What is your problem?" Katara growled, her cheeks bright with embarrassment.
"Hey!" Sokka's snippy, protective tone burst out from across the way. "Didn't we agree on the whole...-" He vaguely waved his hand at Toph as he quickly approached. "-...you...not hitting on my sister...thing?" Sokka stomped over and glowered at the ruffian with the unkempt hair. "I'm pretty sure we agreed on that a while ago."
"I was hitting her, not hitting on her, you Meathead," Toph snorted.
"You were hitting on me, too, you ass," groaned Katara darkly, sheepishly going back to her cooking.
"It's not my fault you think I'm so hot," Toph nonchalantly shifted the angle.
"OK!" Sokka interjected. "Big brother here. Not so keen on the awkward sexual tension, guys."
"Ohhhh, trust me, there will not be anything like that going on with this jerk," Katara insisted.
"Doesn't mean you don't wanna," picked Toph, eliciting a twitching eyebrow from Katara as she withheld her wrath.
"Seriously!" Sokka hissed, pointing out his weapon threateningly. "Don't make me use my 'Rang."
Toph's eyebrow raised in petty amusement, his eyes aimless at the ground. Katara shook her head with disapproval.
"I hope you realize that the only reason we put up with you is because poor Aang needs you to teach her Earthbending," she pointed out, swinging her wooden spoon about in Toph's direction.
"I don't know how she deals with you," Sokka sighed, knocking his boomerang against his skull gently. "Personally, I think she's got somethin' loose up here for going through all that trouble to get you to come with us."
"She's a sweetie," Katara defended. "She'll tolerate even a total ass like this kid." She prodded a finger at Toph's shoulder fiercely. "And you'd better not let her down, or you'll have to deal with me."
"Is that a threat or an invitation?"
"Ugh." Sapphire eyes rolled and Katara shoved Toph's shoulder with hostility. "You're a creep. You know that?"
"You keep telling yourself that, Sweet-Stuff."
"Don't call me that..."
"Heartbeat's going up again..."
"Hey, Cripple," huffed Sokka. "I came here to tell you that Aang's waiting for you by th-""What did you just call me?"
A satisfied smirk worked its way over Sokka's face.
"Cripple," Sokka goaded smugly. "Ya know, like...someone who's handicapped."
The earth rumbled as Toph stamped a filthy bare foot into the ground, causing a ten-foot boulder of compacted dirt to emerge, poised for Sokka. The Water Tribe boy whipped out his boomerang, skillfully tossing it into the the air. As Toph punched the levitated rock, blasting it to Sokka, the boomerang arced around it. Katara cried out in shock, but before she could even quell their squabble, the boulder split in two, each half sliding to the ground on either side of a surprised but relieved Sokka. A gust of air lashed at Sokka's boomerang, redirecting it past Toph's head, planting it into the grass at Katara's feet, who yelped out in fear at its close proximity.
The dust cleared and between the two boys stood a young girl, her long brown hair blowing in the leftover breeze, a blue arrow tattooed into her forehead. Hunched over, her staff clutched tightly in her hands, she shifted her gray eyes from Toph, then to Sokka.
"Aang?" Katara called out with concern. "Are you OK?"
"I'm OK!" piped Aang in her timid voice. "Is...Is everyone else OK?"
"Heh." Sokka shrugged with a grin.
Toph pounded his palms together slowly in a methodical clap.
"Not bad, Twinkle-Toes. Not bad..."
"...Huh?" squeaked Aang, calming her defensive pose and blinking, wide-eyed.
"That was a half-assed effort at bending but you got the job done!" Toph complimented in as much a fashion as could be expected.
"H-hey, wait a minute!" Aang defied with irritation. "You can't just...just go picking fights like that! Someone could've gotten hurt!" She turned to Sokka, her bright eyes surveying his casual demeanor - at least he seemed unfazed.
"That was a test, Miss Twinkles," Toph explained, striding over. "I could feel your little baby steps from a mile away, so I thought I'd stir up some fun and see what you did."
"You were going to flatten me with a rock just to see if Aang would save me in time?" Sokka roared, tossing his arms up. "What kind of training method is that?"
Aang gave pause, tapping her chin as she turned back to Toph. He slapped his arm around her shoulder and she shrunk under his grip.
"Th-that's...the same kind of method Bumi used," Aang timidly recognized. "Kinda..."
"Say what now?" Toph mumbled.
"N-nothing," Aang chirped with a plastic smile - that Toph couldn't see. "I know you're trying to help me learn, Sifu Toph, but...I really don't think it's such a good idea to try and do stuff like that...So maybe next time we-" Toph pounded his palm against her back, causing her to choke on her own words.
"Next time is right now, Girlie. The Fire Lord isn't going to kick his own ass, is he?"
"Umm..." Aang recovered from Toph's roughhousing, fidgeting her tiny fingers together.
"Aang, Sweetie," Katara interjected, "If you need a break, it's totally fine. You've been working hard all day, and dinner's almost done."
"Yea, Kiddo," Sokka agreed, "You look a little beat..."
"I-I do?" Aang murmured, wiping sweat from her forehead.
"Oh, you're fine," Toph insisted, squeezing his arm around Aang and tugging her in.
"Actually," Aang disagreed, squirming from his grasp, "I am pretty hungry..." She scurried over to Katara, who was beside her stew, the edges of the pot soiled from spills caused by Toph's earth shaking. Katara immediately set a hand over Aang's forehead, pushing back disheveled strands of hair.
"You OK?" Katara checked quietly.
"Good. Maybe after dinner we can cool off with some water bending."
"Yea, that sounds nice, Katara."
Toph sighed, thumping his foot impatiently.
"Pff. If you can't handle me, Miss Twinkles, I don't know how you're gonna deal with the Fire Lord."
Aang sighed, her eyes wandered to the ground with doubt, but Katara rubbed her back with care.
"That's still a ways off, Toph," Katara defended. "We need to take this one step at a time, I think."
"Yea? Well...-" Toph trailed off, kicking up some dirt from the fresh hole he'd made moments before. "Little Miss Monk here takes such tiny baby steps that your plan ain't gonna work, Sweetness."
"Don't listen to him," Katara whispered her defiance in Aang's ear, clutching the air bender's shoulders. "We still have plenty of time, and you can't push yourself or you'll burn out, Hun."
"Mm," Aang shrugged, rubbing her temple with fret as a headache emerged.
"Whatever," grunted Toph with dismissal. "Fine, Twinkles. Have Mommy make your din-din and kiss all your boo-boo's, I'll be waiting for you when you decide you actually want to learn some bending."
As Toph stomped off, Katara began scooping some stew into a wooden bowl.
"Are you sure this guy's the best earth bending teacher for you, Aang?" she dubiously wondered, passing the bowl to the lean girl.
Aang took in a slow breath, savoring the scent of the vegetables and broth. It was calming after a hard day's work of practice.
"I know he seems...em...rough," Aang admitted with a shrug as she received a wooden spoon. "But he's the right one. He's the teacher I need." She drew a spoonful of stew to her lips, blowing out a tiny gust, using her bending to quickly cool the substance.
Sokka sat down beside them, picking up his own bowl.
"I don't get why King Bumi couldn't have taught you himself," he lamented.
"Because he isn't the teacher I need, Sokka," insisted Aang after swallowing her first bite.
"The least he could do is stop being such a perverted jerk," Katara grumbled with disdain as she served herself last.
"I'm sure that...he'll get better," Aang decided. "It seems like he hasn't had a very good upbringing..."
"True or not, he needs to treat you - and us, honestly - with more respect."
"Katara's right," agreed Sokka. "If he's going to keep being part of this team, he needs to tone down the testosterone."
"Nah, that's all right, Aang," Sokka turned down her offer. "I was thinking of just going for a walk, getting some time to myself."
"Oh," Aang's voice drooped with disappointment. "Y-yea, OK. I understand..."
"Hey, but ya know, Katara was saying she wanted to take you out for the day to the spa."
"Ya know, like...getting all cleaned up and pretty and stuff."
"Hm." Aang nodded at the proposal. "Do you think I...need that?"
"Uh, well...I dunno." Sokka shrugged indifferently. "I guess? It couldn't hurt to take a break, get out of those monk clothes."
"Oh." Aang's head bobbed slightly as she contemplated his reaction. "I-I mean, that sounds...nice and all, but I really need to keep looking for Appa..."
"Right. Well, I was just throwing it out there. I get where you're comin' from, Kiddo. We'll find him."
"Mm..." Aang rubbed the back of her neck with uncertainty. "I'm just really worried about him...He could be hurt, or...who knows what..."
"Still worrying about that big oaf Appa, huh?"
They both turned to see Toph leaning casually against the entrance doorway to their small, temporary residence in Ba Sing Se. They had only just gotten settled in and the group had decided to make the most of the amenities offered to them. Aang, however, couldn't rest easy without her childhood companion Appa.
"If you're really so shook up about him, how about I try and help ya find him?"
Sokka and Aang exchanged baffled glances before directing their gazes back to an aloof Toph.
"You want to help?" Aang muttered, aghast.
"Did you forget how well I can detect stuff with my earth bending? If that giant furball is hiding anywhere in this city...-" He lifted a foot, flashing its filthy, calloused surface. "-...these feet'll find him."
"Sounds like somebody's conscious is feeling bad," Sokka mused, referring to the situation which resulted in Appa's disappearance.
"Meh." Toph leaned off of the doorway and sauntered toward them. "I'm not afraid to admit it when I screw up." He snorted. "It doesn't happen very often, anyway."
"So...you'll help me?" Aang checked, wary of his openness to assist.
"That's what I said, ain't it?"
"Great." Sokka slapped Aang's slender shoulder as he headed out where Toph had come in. "You two enjoy your little date, then, I'll catch ya later."
"What?" Aang gasped, her face flushing red. "But, this isn't a...-" But she trailed off as Toph slammed his fist into Sokka's arm with a smug grin. Sokka retaliated with a brisk smack to the backside of Toph's head. Aang made to call out to Sokka but ended up not saying a word.
"So are we headin' out, Twinkles, or what?"
Aang shed her nervous expression to reveal optimistic determination.
"Yea, let's go."
The city streets were lively and peaceful, but no signs of the sky bison were to be found. The two eventually sought some lunch in the form of fruit from a local vendor, and took their meal to the side of a small river that ran through Ba Sing Se.
"I hope Appa's OK," Aang mumbled with longing, kicking her feet out over the riverbank.
"Hey, no sweat. Appa's a tough guy. Trust me, I know."
"Right. Because you're such a tough guy yourself, huh?"
"Obviously." Toph flexed his arm, pounding his palm against its muscle.
"Katara says there's no use in me staying upset about it," sighed Aang, nodding her head down as she kicked out her foot. The motion splashed some water from the river's surface below, and she bended the liquid in a loop through the air with her foot before casting it back in. "I know it's more important that we talk with the Earth King, but I really hope we find Appa soon."
"I still can't believe she wants to take you to a freakin' spa."
"Mm. I think...I could probably use it, though."
"W-well, Sokka seemed to think I could use some prettying up. Or something."
"Pff. What does he know?"
Aang shrugged, her guts churning. She took a bite of her apple.
"I don't get what you girls see in that idiot," Toph complained, his expression bitter. "He's a wimp and a moron. Seems like every girl we run across has a thing for him."
"Sounds like you're jealous," Aang curtly observed.
"Are you kidding me? What's there to be jealous about? I don't need to go waving pieces of metal around to impress people."
"What's it matter to you? He can't bend...I think it's brave of him to find other ways to help us out."
"How long will it be 'til you come to senses and get over this stupid crush you have on him?" blurted Toph, thumping his fist into the ground, his irate white eyes glaring indirectly to the river below.
Aang's cheeks lit on fire as she bit into her apple again, unsure of how to respond.
"He doesn't like you, ya know," Toph added. "He's still hung up on Suki."
"Wh-?" Aang choked on her apple. "He's...-? Him and Suki?"
"Uh, yea, wasn't it obvious?"
"How...? I never saw them...-"
"Sounds like you're the one turning a blind eye here, Miss Twinkles."
Aang frowned at Toph's words and tore more flesh from her apple. She crossed her arms and she chewed.
"What do you care, anyway?" she snapped after swallowing. "At least Sokka's a nice guy."
"Nice guys finish last, Twinkle-Toes. You wanna take out the Fire Lord? You're gonna have to grow up and stop acting like some sweet little flower child."
"Suki's not even with us," Aang huffed under her breath, stuck on the revelation.
"Who's jealous, again?"
"Ow! Wh-what was that for?" Aang demanded, massaging her bony shoulder from the blow Toph had landed on it with his fist.
"It's how I show affection," Toph chuckled devilishly.
"Hmph. Just because nice guys finish last doesn't make it OK to be a mean guy," Aang whimpered, her hand still running along her arm.
"If being mean is what it takes to make you come to your senses, Miss Twinkles, then that's what I'm gonna do."
"It's not even your business," pouted Aang. "Just because you can do that...thing...where you can read heartbeats, it...That doesn't make it OK for you to butt in on people's privacy."
"Like it's private," scoffed Toph. "Katara can tell, too, ya know."
"Like how she can tell you like her?"
"Oh, please. That's harmless flirting."
"I see. So it's OK to be a jerk to women, and hit them for no reason. And we're just supposed to be fine with that."
Toph's jaw opened, seemingly poised to lash out a counterattack, but none came. He opted to go on eating his mango instead.
"I know I need to be stronger to defeat the Fire Lord," Aang continued, her eyes welling up. "I have to be tough and...-" A shaky sigh. "I can't quit. I know you're trying to teach me that. But that doesn't mean...that I have to be like you." A tiny sniffle emerged as she wiped her face with her sleeve. "Sometimes the way you act...It hurts Katara's feelings. It hurts my feelings."
Toph sighed, running his hand through his disheveled black hair.
"Maybe you're just joking," Aang continued. "And sometimes it is funny...But you need to know when to...to tone it down. I guess?"
"Maybe Sokka doesn't like me back," Aang grumbled. "But I know Katara doesn't like you, either, because she told me. I didn't need to try...snooping around and...and listening to heartbeats. So...-"
"Good," Toph huffed. Aang noticed a hint of blushing on his cheeks. "Like I care. Sugar-Queen's too stuck up, anyway."
"Then I guess that's all sorted, isn't it?" Aang concluded briskly, finishing off her apple and tossing the core into the river.
Katara paced back and forth, biting her lip. Her hands kept fidgeting together before her stomach as she walked, lost in thought. Worries and doubts plagued her, creeping out from the back of her mind on this day to give her grief. They had been doing all they could given the circumstances. All that was left at this point was to wait.
The metal door behind her knocked twice. She immediately swerved around and opened it, somewhat confused to see Toph standing in the dark hall.
"What is it?" Katara sharply inquired.
"Hey," grunted Toph. "How is she?"
"She's...She's OK," Katara advised. "She's getting better, but...it's going to take some more time, I think..."
"You sure she's all right?" Toph grumbled dubiously. "It's been weeks now..."
"Yes, she's still recovering but she's going to get better," insisted Katara. "I'm going to make sure she does."
"Good. You'd better, Sweetness."
"Wh-...?" Katara was off-put by what seemed like a threat. "Did you...? Can I help you with something?"
"I just came to check on Aang. Geez..." He huffed, blowing his long bangs around his face. "Am I not allowed to do that?"
Katara's hands gripped her hips as she glowered at him, a defensive eyebrow raised.
"Like I said, she's fine."
"Can I come in?"
"She's sick, she's hurt, she...needs her space."
"Come on, Katara," Toph growled. "I'm not...-" He sighed and scratched at his ear. "I haven't seen her in a while."
"You can't see her, anyway, what's the point?"
"Pff, thanks for rubbin' it in, Sweetness. I meant...You know what I meant. I just want to...be near her for a sec. I dunno..."
Katara's eyes wandered to the side as she considered offering some sympathy.
"All right..." She stood aside, letting Toph approach. "But I've got my eye on you, Buster." She prodded an index finger into his shoulder as he entered.
"So, er...-" Toph shrugged, stepping in. Utilizing his recently realized ability to bend metal, he managed to find his way over to Aang's resting place, a bed in the corner of the captain's quarters, the room they resided in. "Here ya are, Twinkle-Toes..." He stood above her stilled body and tapped his foot, detecting Katara's presence looming behind. "Could I, uh...have some privacy, here?" he requested with irritation.
"Excuse me?" Katara was appalled at the idea. "What, exactly, do you have in mind, Mister?"
"I'm not-!" Toph began to shout, but remembered the quiet, injured girl in the bed and sucked in a sharp breath, settling his tone. "It's not like that. I just want some privacy, Katara. Please."
Katara's eyelids narrowed at his surprisingly innocuous demeanor as she studied his tense profile. The concern was genuine.
"All right," Katara gently conceded, making her way to the door. "Don't go trying anything funny..."
"I won't," Toph insisted with all due seriousness. "It'll only be a minute."
"OK." Katara slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her. Toph was still figuring out how to properly detect things through metal, and her fuzzy form was still hovering in the hall behind the door as he slid his bare foot along the smooth, polished metal floor. Based on the vibrations, he could at least tell that the girl before him was resting on her stomach. He reached out his hand with care, his thick fingers gently touching her shoulder. Slowly and carefully, he ran his fingertips down her back, searching for...Ah, there it was. The rough skin that his touch brushed over was just the startling reality he needed. This was the injury that a bolt of lightning had left on her back during a fight with the princess of the Fire Nation. A quiet, unsettled moan dripped out of Aang's lips and Toph immediately removed his hand.
"Crap," he whispered. "I'm sorry, Twinkles..." No response. "Gah..." Toph wiped sweat from his forehead and sighed. "I sure hope you didn't try fighting that psycho 'cuz of what I taught ya," he lamented solemnly and with hushed words, recalling the story Katara told him of how Azula had attacked with a bolt of lightning. "Guess you really have gotten braver. But ya gotta stop confusing bravery with stupidity, ya dumb girl..." Toph's wrist trembled as he dared to place his hand on the back of her head. The gritty, thick strands of soft hair were therapeutic to his tired, calloused skin. He slowly pressed his hand down on her skull. "Get better soon, Miss Twinkles. Or you'll have more than that scar to worry about..." He straightened her hair back down as best he could and exited the room, calmly closing the door behind him.
He twitched with surprise when Katara's comforting hand met his shoulder. Though he couldn't see it, she gave him an empathetic, endeared smile.
"I promise, Toph, she's going to be OK. We'll take care of her, and then we'll all help her end this war - together."
The waves gently lapped at the shores of Ember Island, and Aang sucked in a deep breath, savoring the salty evening air. The sun had finished setting minutes ago, and the only light Aang could see was the flickering campfire out on the sands. Weary from her rigorous fire bending training with Zuko, she wobbled her way over to the lone girl and quietly sat down beside her. Katara's glazed eyes reflected the flickering flames, her expression solemn and contemplative.
"Mm?" Katara's tired eyes blinked, regaining their focus and directing to Aang. "Oh. Hi, Aang. How are you doing, Hun?"
"I'm...OK," Aang meekly replied.
Aang's head sunk into her neck as her gray eyes shifted from Katara's curious glance to the campfire. A gentle breeze kicked in, swayed the curving flames and tossing Aang's cut hair about. Since arriving in the Fire Nation, she had originally cut her hair to a shorter length to help convey her identity. Aang wasn't sure she liked it, but it was a matter of necessity and convenience at the time. But shorter hair didn't cover the blue arrow embedded in her forehead's skin. Soon enough, it'd be time to show Lord Ozai the bright blue symbol that he feared and illustrate why he should fear it.
"Yea. Just OK," Aang conceded with a shrug, hypnotized by the calm, ever-changing light source.
"Long day, huh?"
"Hm. Me, too." Katara tucked in her knees and planted her chin upon them.
"It's...about Zuko, isn't it?" Aang guessed. Her answer was confirmed as Katara's eyelids closed and she sighed.
"Yea. Ever since we confronted the man who...-" Katara trailed off with a shrug, but Aang knew full well the touchiness of the topic. Aang had been relieved to hear that Katara had not hurt the man who had killed her and Sokka's mother, and she had even found it in herself to forgive Zuko for his own trespasses - something the rest of the group had found easier than Katara. "I don't know," Katara muttered with uncertainty. "Things between us have just been...different." She gazed into the flames, losing herself in doubt.
"Yea..." Aang nodded carefully. "I can tell."
"There's this...you know...Like this pulling. This tension. I just...don't know if it's what's best, though."
"Hm." Another courteous and understanding nod. Katara's glance met Aang's with a melancholy frown.
"Zuko seems like...he understands me, I guess, but...I'm not sure. It feels like something's...missing."
"Well..." Aang shrugged, offering optimism. "You two don't know each other super well yet. Maybe...it just needs time?"
"I know how you feel, though," Aang admitted. "With me and Toph, it's...the same."
"You feel that weird...awkwardness?"
"You and Toph...you two are pretty different, though."
"I know. But Toph, he...isn't the same person he was when he met."
"Ha. Neither are you, Hun. You're pretty different, too."
"In a good way?"
"In a very good way. You've become very brave, Aang."
"Thanks...I think that Toph has helped me do that."
"I can see that."
"Like...because we're so different, I think it's made us both, like...learn from each other...?"
"Hee, yea, I think so."
"Zuko sure isn't the same guy he was before, either."
"I guess Toph and Zuko have both changed a lot, huh?"
"Yea. They...they have."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm...-" Aang rolled her head back to look up to the starry night sky. "I think I'm willing to give him a chance."
"Yea," Katara nodded in approval. "You probably think that's what I should do, too, huh?"
The air bender gave her close friend a warm smile.
"Mm-hm. You never know if you don't try, right?"
Katara giggled, shaking her head.
"Oh." She looked away. "It's just...Here we are, getting ready to...to try to fight a king, and...end a war, and...We're worried about romance."
"I-I mean, we're still...We're just kids, you know?"
"Th-that doesn't mean we can't...have those kind of feelings, though," Aang defended, her cheeks bright.
"I know." Katara grinned slyly at Aang's embarrassment. "But this? This is good, Hun. Us...-" She pointed her finger back and forth between them. "-...you know...talking about this stuff. I think it's smart."
"I just don't think it's a good idea to jump into this kind of thing."
"Oh. That does sound smart. Heh."
"I'm going to give Zuko a chance, and you're going to give Toph a chance, too."
"You really think that's a good idea?"
"You're right, Aang. Toph has changed. I know he and I don't see eye-to-eye, but...I can tell you two care about each other a lot. I think he really has made you more brave, and...-" She shot Aang a coy smirk. "I think being with you has made him show more of a softer side."
"As much as he can, at least."
"Well..." Aang pushed herself up from the sand and gently air bended grains from her pants. "Before we can worry about silly boys...we need to take care of the Fire Lord."
"Yea." Katara rose to her feet as well, and summoned a globule of water from the nearby ocean to douse her campfire. "We'll settle this mess and put Ozai in his place - together."
"I wouldn't want it any other way," Aang agreed with a determined nod.
"Come here." Katara opened her arms, and Aang accepted the gesture. They hugged tightly for a long embrace, and Katara assured, "You're going to be a great leader, Aang."
"You big baby."
"I'm not a baby!" Aang protested.
"She beat the Fire Lord down," Sokka defended, setting down his mug of tea. The group was relaxing in Iroh's tea shop during a respite in Ba Sing Se, their arduous travels behind them.
"Yea," Aang nodded fiercely as Iroh refilled hers back up. "You can't call me a baby."
"Pff. You beat one old guy. I took down a whole fleet of Fire Nation airships."
"Ahem!" Sokka loudly cleared his throat. "You mean we did? I planned the whole operation, after all."
"And if Suki hadn't shown up when she did, you wouldn't be here," Katara further destroyed Toph's claim.
"Did you just call my father 'one old guy?'" Zuko checked. "The Fire Lord? That man who was keeping the entire world locked in war?"
"Yea, yea, yea," Toph hurriedly dismissed the assault on his reputation. "Ya know, we could fight about details all day but when it comes down to it, Miss Twinkles here is still a softie." Toph knuckled her skull playfully and she pushed him off with a coy grin. "Couldn't even take him out..."
Aang's tiny smile withered into a disapproving frown.
"But...But I defeated him."
"Nooo, you handicapped him."
"You think I should've...killed him...?"
"Pff, am I the Avatar?" Toph rhetorically posed. "What do I know, huh?" He tugged on Aang's hair and she yelped in surprise. "Maybe you're a tree-hugger, but you stood your ground and you made it work your own way, and that deserves props."
"Toph's right - for once," Katara agreed. "It's that kind of thinking that will make her a great leader." Katara raised her tea mug. "Here's to Aang: our friend, our leader, and a girl with a heart of gold."
"Here, here!" Sokka cheered, clinking his mug with his sister's.
"I'll drink to that," Zuko agreed as he joined in the knocking of ceramic.
"To Twinkle-Toes!" Toph roared, sticking his mug out and letting the others smack it.
Aang's face was flushed red and she timidly waited for the ritual to complete before sipping on her drink as the rest took hearty gulps.
"May she always have loved ones to look after her," Katara amended her toast, eliciting another round of clashing cups.
Aang sighed with relief and satisfaction at the setting sun over the sprawling city below. She reflected not on the trials she had gone through to master her bending, the battle with Lord Ozai, or the confusing frustrations of their travels. Instead she considered how each person had contributed to this victory - how she couldn't have done it by herself.
"Hey, what's Miss Twinkles doin' out here mopin' by herself?" Toph had snuck out of the tea shop. Aang admired him when he dressed up like this: his clean robes looked sharp and accented his pride and unrelenting determination.
"Just needed to be outside for a minute," Aang explained.
"I can tell from your heartbeat: you're down about something..."
"Oh..." Aang shrugged, lamenting how futile it was to try and hide anything from him. Perhaps this wasn't so bad - it'd keep her accountable, at least. "I'm just...sad because I feel like...now we may not be seeing each other very much anymore."
"Hey, that's how it goes some times." Toph strolled to her side and grabbed her tightly by the hand. The sensation was comforting and secure - something she was still learning to get used to. "No matter what happens, though, I've got your back, Twinkle-Toes."
"Yea," acknowledged Aang.
"And ya know, I think you've got me covered, too."
"You're not the same wimpy little nun you were when we met," Toph noted, tugging on her ear. "But I think your ears have gotten even bigger...Yikes."
"Hey," she whimpered, brushing him off. "My ears aren't that big..."
"They are freakin' huge."
"Are so." Toph leaned toward her and managed to find his way to her cheek to plant a kiss. "Wouldn't want 'em any other way, though."
A smile couldn't be hidden any longer from Aang's face from the contact of his rough lips. He sure was getting pretty forward with things now that the war was over.
"Are you sure it's a good idea for us to try this?" she wondered with vague doubt.
Toph's smirk melted to reveal his solemn concern.
"Uh, yea? It was my idea, wasn't it? Why?"
"I don't know, I just wonder if...-" She sighed, fiddling with her recently braided hair. "We're so different."
"Ain't that the truth..."
"I'm worried this won't work."
"Oh, come on, Aang, don't give up on me now, after all that," Toph confidently advised, working his hand around her hip and pulling her in. "You found a way to beat Ozai without killing him - I'm sure you can find a way to put up with me, right?"
"I guess you're right..."
"Being right: that's what I do." Toph rubbed Aang's side casually.
"You taught me how to be brave, and I taught you how to not be such a big jerk all the time, so...Maybe we both still have more to learn."
"Man, I'm still a total jerk constantly, I don't even know what you're talkin' about."
"Heh. You can tell yourself that."
"And now that the Fire Lord's gone, how do I know that bravery of yours has stuck? Huh?"
Aang glared at Toph's daring expression as she turned to face him, wrapping her arms around his back. She swallowed her fear and plunged her face into his, their lips puckering out into one another's for a brief moment. Toph was left wide-eyed and he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"Wow. You just ruined our first kiss on a dare. That's not brave - that's stupid."
"Then maybe we're more similar than I thought."
"No way, man. Don't you go comparing yourself to me, I'm-...Wait...Oh-ho, I see what ya did there, ya sneaky Lemur-Bat..." Toph pinched Aang's ear again and she wrestled him off. They struggled against each other's might like two turtle-lion cubs until Toph managed to catch her by surprise by kissing her forehead.
Aang whispered with excitement in Toph's ear.
"One adventure ends, and another begins."