Katara and Zuko sat next to each other on the ground, staring intently at the small fire he had created for their camp, as he explained a few simple firebending moves to her. She watched his hands intently, and eagerly held out her own when he offered to teach them to her.
Sokka noticed the way they leaned into each other, and the unconscious familiarity in the contact of their hands, their skin, and nudged Aang. The Avatar looked away from tossing Momo his dinner and frowned a little. "It's not like she can actually firebend," Sokka muttered.
"Well, firebending moves are fierce enough to work on their own, without the fire behind them. There's a lot of punching. It's more about control than actual movement, really—"
"Theory's great, Aang, but I don't think Katara should—"
"Right." Aang looked sideways at Sokka and flicked the fingers of his right hand. The fire blazed for a split-second, and Katara pulled back her hands with a yelp.
"Sorry!" Zuko apologized while she pulled out her canteen. (Sokka and Aang subtly high-fived. Subtly.
…well, they did manage to keep from jumping up and down in triumph.)
"It's okay, I got a little too close, that's all, look, they're fine—" She held up her healed hands; Zuko barely touched her fingertips, amazement on his scarred face. Sokka scowled, watching their hands dance around each other. It wouldn't surprise him if lightning started springing between them, the way the sparks were flying. Stupid scarred show-off-y son of a…seagull. Stupid alliteration.
"Hey, Katara!" Aang said loudly. The pair by the fire jumped and instantly pulled apart. Zuko looked away into the forest around them, while Katara stood and dusted off her tunic. "Wanna practice waterbending?"
"Aang, you're a Master already," Katara pointed out. "A little practice isn't going to make much of a difference."
"Fine. We'll spar. I bet…ten minutes before I beat you."
"I'd give it two," Sokka offered.
Katara's eyes flashed while the boys exchanged thumbs-up. "Is that what you think?" she snapped, storming off to the stream a few yards from the fire circle. Aang floated up to follow her, winking at her brother.
The undergrowth crashed, leaves rustling against each other, and then the sounds of splashing and yelping drifted into the clearing. The fire crackled. Leather creaked as Zuko stretched his legs out into the fire as he was wont to do, covertly checking to see if Sokka was paying attention. The other boy wasn't so he sighed and withdrew them, settling into a meditative pose. Sokka usually hated silence, but the sound of his boomerang on its whetstone and the accompanying mental pictures of Zuko's head flying into the distance were acceptable substitutes for conversation.
A cry of "Hey! You little cheating—" followed by the sound of water crashing against a large rock and a wet splat of person against rock made them both look towards the stream. Sokka stood, testing the edge of his boomerang, and stepped quietly through the trees. Zuko opened both eyes, then placed his hands palms-up on his knees, and smiled just a little as twin balls of flame appeared. He stretched them out between his hands, forming one long strand, then started weaving a cat's cradle of pure flame.
"You're not supposed to be doing that," sang a snobby voice. He rolled his eyes as the blind earthbender came back from scrubbing Appa's toes and sat in the warm spot next to him. "Sokka would be angry."
"And I'm so worried what he'll do to me," he said, though the fire disappeared.
"He's a lot fiercer than he acts," Toph said. "He just has the bad luck of running into that crazy chick—"
"Ty Lee," Zuko absent-mindedly corrected.
"—every time and she puts him down in an instant."
"She likes him."
The earth beneath him quivered; Toph's way of conveying surprise when she didn't want to stop smirking. "What makes you so sure?"
"Because after she puts him down, she hovers over him."
"To make sure he doesn't get up."
"You can't see her face."
Zuko was the only one to say things like that to Toph, and it was one thing she liked about him. Sokka was uncomfortable, Katara too tactful, and Aang afraid of her temper. Zuko didn't care about much of anything.
She didn't know he liked her blindness, because it meant she couldn't see his face, either. Sokka taunted him with his eyes every time he looked at him, while Aang was curious and Katara was Katara and not to be understood from one minute to the next (damn her). They'd told Toph about his scar, but she didn't really know what people looked like to begin with, so how was she to judge?
"So she gets that 'oo I've found a new pet' look that makes most boys run in terror, but Sokka can't."
Toph laughed. "Poor Sokka."
"Not really. Ty Lee just wanted to join the circus."
"But she's working with Azula now."
"Because it's so easy to oppose her, you know."
"We're doing all right."
Zuko didn't answer that, shifting and stretching his legs into the fire again, watching it dance around him, avoiding him like a stranger.
"Was Katara sitting here?"
He nearly lost control and hastily yanked his legs back under him. "It's just that this seat is warm, and Katara-shaped," Toph said in a voice that implied it was anything but just.
"I was just showing her some firebending moves," he said, attempting to pull the just—the "simply," the "only," the "I'm-perfectly-capable-of-breathing-when-she's-near"—back into the conversation.
"Did you hold her hand this time?"
Or maybe he couldn't breathe when any girl was near. "Wuh—"
"Aw, he stutters," Toph giggled.
Zuko glared fiercely, perfectly aware that she couldn't see him but hoping the heat of his gaze—a very real and formidable entity—would burn straight through her perceptive brain. "We were not holding hands," he informed her. "I was showing her firebending moves."
"She can't firebend."
"She can adapt the moves."
"Want me to show you some earthbending?" When he didn't reply, she leaned against him and whispered in his ear, "I could make the earth move under your feet."
He leaned away. "You're twelve years old."
"So you weren't 'just' firebending," she said triumphantly.
Zuko groaned and put his head in his hands.
"I think it's cute, really," she said. "Sugar Queen and Fire Breath, sittin' in a tree—well, on the ground, really—k-i-"
She raised her seat up five feet and sat dispassionately as a stream of flame crashed into her new cliff. "You should be more accepting, you know."
As she came back down to his level he said, "It's nothing. To accept."
"Uh-huh. How does she make you feel?"
Zuko exhaled and ran his hands through his hair. "Miserable," he admitted. Looking at her, he saw her unseeing eyes were trained upon him, waiting. She was twelve, but in her eyes was a wisdom he didn't have, but one he thought he recognized from Katara, when she thought he wasn't watching her (which he always was, but stealth was his specialty), and for a second he understood. Then it was gone and he shook his head and said, "Not—miserable. But…miserable. In a good—in a—miserable."
"I understand completely," she said. "Warm and melt-y—well, you're always warm—happy, afraid and rejected, too tough, too sensitive, too big a gap, too thick a wall, but whole and peaceful at the same time, and you fight it and fight it but you just want to stop fighting because that's all you have to do. Complete."
He stared at her, and she met his gaze.
"Aang's in love with Katara," she said.
Before he could answer, the trio crashed back into the clearing, sopping wet and laughing. Katara's hair had completely escaped its bindings and spiraled down her back in damp curls, and she hung onto Sokka's arms while he tried to defend himself from Aang's relentless attacks. Finally he dropped to his knees and begged for mercy; the water hanging in the air splashed onto the ground while Katara released him and grabbed Aang and they laughed and laughed. Her eyes caught Zuko's, bright and clear and mirthful, and for a second her smile changed, still a smile but a smile—just for him, her joy in the moment gift-wrapped and hand-delivered to his heart. Then Aang was saying something and she turned to him, but the world had gone curiously mute and anyway Zuko felt as blind as his companion.
"You know what?" Toph said, the pitch of her voice failing to penetrate his thoughts.
He thought what? but didn't say anything.
"Look at them."
As if he could look away.
"You're going to break his heart."
He sort of nodded, but the words were starting to become clear in his head.
"And when you do…" She paused for dramatic effect, then declared, "I'm going to be there to put it back together."
He looked at her, startled, but not unpleasantly so, not surprised at all, supportive instead.
A wolfish kind of grin came to her face. "And that, Zuko, is what I really like about you."