Disclaimer: Avatar the Last Airbender copyright Michael DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Nickelodeon. No copyright infringement is intended. Story was created for entertainment purposes only and if requested to be removed, it will be done immediately and without complaint.

Chapter 8
Ling Tao's Proposition

The Avatar was here again, Ling Tao noticed as he nodded in acknowledgment to the servants before journeying down the familiar corridors and hallways until he was in front of Toph's room. He lifted his hand to knock but hesitated. She was hurting and he didn't know if he could bother her at such a time. It had been a week since their encounter with the Avatar and she had refused to come out of her room for any occasion. All her meals and messages were brought to her.

He sighed. She was only hurting both herself and the Avatar by doing this. This couldn't continue for much longer and he was going to put an end to it. Although it pained him to do this, he lowered his hand and turned on his heel, heading back to where he came from.

A week passed by since the party and no progress had been made. Aang huffed as he dispelled his air scooter and slumped down on the floor, nibbling on a few nuts from his nut bag. Momo perched on the young Avatar's shoulder and nibbled on a few of the nuts as well.

"I don't know what to do, Momo," said Aang.

The lemur looked at him curiously but continued to munch on his snack.

"I've been to the Bei Fong estate everyday for a week and I've been sent away every time!" He sighed, handing over the rest of the nuts to Momo. "It seems as if Lao Bei Fong is allowing me to stay until Toph agrees to see me as gratitude for bringing her home… but even he knows that it's useless."

"She's to wed Ling Tao soon… I don't know the exact date, but I can feel that it's soon. Mr. and Mrs. Bei Fong are always running around discussing details to their business or the upcoming wedding." He grabbed his head in frustration. "What am I going to do, Momo? How am I supposed to gain Toph's forgiveness, confess my love to her, and stop her from marrying Ling Tao?"

He had been mulling over this issue for the past few hours and was close to ripping all his hair out if he hadn't already shaved it all off. He knew Toph was stubborn, but he had no idea what he could possibly do just for a chance to speak with her again. No doubt the five years that they had spent apart had intensified her stubbornness and he couldn't help but wonder if her temper was the same. How much had she changed these past few years? He hung his head shamefully when he realized that it was his own fault for not keeping in touch with her since he was the one to cause this situation in the first place.

Aang let out a small growl of frustration when Momo's silence answered him; the only sounds in the small inn room were of the lemur munching on the bag of nuts. So when he heard someone chuckling from the doorway, he immediately straightened up from his lopsided position of the floor and whipped his heard toward the direction of the voice.

"You could try speaking to people who would answer back," advised Ling Tao, causing the young Avatar's cheeks to turn a deep scarlet.

Aang pulled himself to his feet. "What are you doing here, Mr. Liu?" he asked as courteously as he could under the circumstances.

The other boy's lip lifted in amusement before he bowed. "Ah, I see you know of who I am."

"I was in the audience," Aang informed in a clipped tone. He gestured for his guest to enter the room and reached for a chair by the small table. "What business do you have with me?"

There was no mistaking the icy yet slightly hostile tone of the man before him. Ling Tao smiled softly. "I came here to speak with you, Avatar Aang. I asked your friend, Katara, of your whereabouts, although it seems the Fire Lord is intent on making me dinner for the kimodo-rhinos tonight."

Aang couldn't help but laugh at bit at the image of Katara holding back a raging Fire Lord. Realizing what he was doing and who it was in front of he cleared his throat and gestured for his guest to take a seat in one of the available chairs.

Ling Tao took the offered seat and declined the offer for tea when he noticed Aang heading to prepare a pot. "That won't be necessary, Avatar Aang." His dark eyes observed the uncomfortable and jerky gestures of the young monk and he knew instantly that his company was as unwanted as he had expected. From what he had gathered, he was nothing but a mere thorn in the Avatar's side in his quest to acquire his friend's forgiveness… and love.

"This won't take too much time. That, I can promise you." Still seeing the doubtful gaze of the young monk, Ling Tao decided that he better get straight to his point. Every man had his limits and he wasn't too thrilled on testing just how far the Avatar's went. "How about I make a little proposition with you… regarding Miss Bei Fong."

"Remind me again why I'm sitting against the wall in an ice cage?" Zuko sneered as he attempted to steam off the restraining substance, only to have it freeze back instantly.

"Because you don't know when to shut up," Katara answered with a quick flick of her wrist, enlarging the surface of the ice-restraint.

He huffed. "I don't see what that has to do with anything. And why did you let that creep in?!"

"Aang can take care of himself, if you're worried that he's here to murder him."

The Fire Lord growled in frustration. Clearly, Katara and he were not thinking on the same wavelength; then again, most of the times they hardly did. "I'm not worried that he's here to murder Aang, I'm worried about what he's here for! He's probably here to rub his arrogant little ego in Aang's face about what position he holds in Toph's life!"

"Oh, and what might that be?" the Waterbender asked flippantly.

"Oh, I don't know… fiancé?" There was no mistaking the sarcasm dripping in his voice as he glared daggers at his companion.

Katara heaved a sigh before finally releasing the ice-restraint on Zuko. "You may think that… but he didn't give off that feeling when he first approached me."

"That's because you're too trusting!" rebutted Zuko as he steamed off the remaining moisture left on his clothes.

She rounded her gaze on him, shooting him glares as he suddenly shirked away. She couldn't believe that he could say such a thing, especially after all that they had gone through together. Their whole journey together after the failed Day of the Black Sun was based solely on trust. If she hadn't learned to trust him back then, then they never would've defeated the Fire Lord and the clearly would've never created the future that they lived in now.

"That may be true. I'm too trusting, so what?" Katara retaliated, taking a step closer to the former prince. "If I wasn't so trusting do you think that you'd even be here? Do you think that I'd even take the benefit of the doubt that you'd changed? I wouldn't have believed you had changed under the Crystal Catacombs if I wasn't so trusting!"

But I had changed, he wanted to say, but he fell silent instead. He couldn't defend himself not after what he had done, not after the horrible betrayal that he committed that imprisoned his Uncle and almost cost the Avatar his life. He remained speechless because everything she said was true and it felt as if she was throwing salt on his old wounds, wounds that would never heal no matter how much time had passed.

"I could have left you there to rot instead of offering my help to remove your scar with the only Oasis water I had, water that if I had used on you would've surely sent Aang to his grave!"

He had to wince at that and sure enough the guilt of what happened all those years ago had come back to haunt him. All that he had done and all that he had not done… it was all his fault and he knew that it would never cease to haunt him for the rest of his life. He knew that was the truth, but hearing her say it was a completely different story. She had forgiven him for what happened back then, but he knew in his heart that she never totally did. She chose to forget what had happened, but she had never forgiven him for nearly taking away one of the most important people of her life. He lowered his head shamefully and hurtfully when he realized that no matter how much he had changed and what friendship they held now would never present him with that position. He would never be one of her most important people. He was a mere foe turned comrade turned friend, nothing more.

"If I hadn't been so trusting, I would surely have objected to you joining our group after Aang allowed you to. That would have made your betrayal of the Fire Nation useless, wouldn't it?"

Yes, she was the last to agree and if it were not for her reluctant acceptance, he'd be a mere banished prince, forever exiled for his betrayal.

A long silence followed where neither party moved nor spoken. All that could be heard were the sounds of Katara's heavy breathing.

"W…what did you just say?"

Ling Tao smiled softly at the flabbergasted expression on the young Avatar's face. It appeared as if he was completely caught off guard. He didn't blame him since a conversation about Toph was probably the last thing the Avatar expected. "It is as I've said."

Aang gritted his teeth as his anger flared. Ling Tao had a lot of nerve barging into his life, engaging himself to the love of his life, and now was making a proposition on her to his rival? Aang couldn't help but be weary of the young man before him. He rose from his chair and crossed the small distance separating him and the other boy. His fingers itched to reach out and to grip the boy's collar threateningly.

"Just what do you mean by that? What proposition is this?" He could feel his anger rising and that was never good. He never could keep his cool whenever something involved Toph and he hated himself for that.

Ling Tao remained eerily calm as the young monk was up his face, waiting for the right moment to strike. "We both know that Miss Bei Fong and I are betrothed and it won't be long before the wedding…" Ling Tao trailed off, observing the Avatar's narrowed eyes and clenched jaw. "I came here today not to provoke you, but to assist you."

"I don't see how you can possibly assist me," Aang bit back, leaning back slightly to cross his arms over his chest with a huff.

"Oh, but I can," Ling Tao insisted. He stood up and reached into his sleeve, procuring a small slip of paper. "You can contact me at my inn when you are ready to listen to my little proposition." He gave one more courteous smile and then he was gone.

Aang glared at the door the other boy had just walked through and then unclenched his hand where the small slip of paper lay crumbled in the palm of his hand.

He couldn't stay in the room, not while his all of his life's regret was being thrown back in his face. He needed to get out of there. Zuko picked himself up off the floor and crossed the room toward the exit.

Why did she have to say those things? She knew that it was a sore topic for him, but yet... she just lost it in her need to explain and defend her trust issues. Katara closed her eyes and groaned to herself as the door clicked shut softly behind her. What had she done?

Sokka hummed lightly to himself as he walked down the crowded street toward the inn. He had just gone off to do a little shopping and was carrying lunch in his arms when he noticed an upset Zuko rushing out the front doors of the inn. He furrowed his brows in confusion. Zuko was hardly ever upset nowadays so it was quite a surprise to see him in such a state.

"Zuko!" called out Sokka, hoping to figure out what was bothering his friend.

The Fire Lord continued down the street as if he hadn't heard a word and strode down the busy streets, disappearing within the crowd.

The Water Tribe warrior could only scratch his head in confusion when Ling Tao exited the front door of the inn moments later. Sokka couldn't understand what business the Liu boy could have with the gAang, but he knew that it couldn't be anything good. He didn't understand what was going on, but he intended to find out and rushed in to find his sister and best friend.

He barged into Aang's bedroom only to find the young Avatar brooding and glaring at a slip of paper in his hand. When he asked what was wrong, Aang only told him that he'd explain things later and that he wanted to be alone. Even Momo had seemed to understand the need to leave its owner alone for a while and climbed up on top of Sokka's shoulder, still gripping the bag of nuts in its furry paw. Sokka didn't want to leave his friend, but he knew that when Aang had that pensive face on, there was no getting through to him. Sighing, Sokka shut the door softly and traveled down the hall and opened the door to his and Katara's shared bedroom.

When he walked in, he found Katara sitting by the window with one of the most desolate expressions he hadn't seen in years.

"Katara?" he called out tentatively.

She tore her gaze away from the window to face him and closed her eyes, fighting back tears. "I think I drove Zuko away…" she whispered.

"W…what? How?" Sokka dropped the sack of food on the nearby table, leaving the lunch forgotten. "You didn't tell him that you and Jiang Tzu are together, did you?"

She broke out of her glazed state for a moment to shoot her brother a confused look. "What are you talking about? What does Jiang Tzu have to do with anything and since when were we a couple?"

Sokka rolled his eyes. "Oh please, Katara. You two were practically together months ago."

She didn't understand what her brother as thinking or what he was talking about. Jiang Tzu and her? What a riot. Katara shook her head and crossed the room to where her brother stood. "I don't know what you're talking about… but Jiang Tzu is a very good friend of mine who's been asking me for love advice!"

"Love advice?" Then he rolled his eyes at how dense his sister was. "I can't believe that you don't see the clues! There is no love advice! If anything, that's just a cover-up for him trying to woo you!"

This time Katara rolled her eyes. "For your information, Mr. Hot Shot, I've met Jiang Tzu's girlfriend. Her name is Mei Han and Jiang Tzu has been giving me presents as gratitude for helping confess to Mei Han."

"That sounds like a lie," Sokka accused, his arms crossed stubbornly and his nose in the air.

"Mei Han is with Jiang Tzu whenever we meet up! If he were cheating on Mei Han with me, she'd know!" Katara exclaimed exasperatedly and then flicked her brother in the middle of his forehead, leaving a bright red spot.

The Water Tribe boy rubbed his head tenderly. "Yeah right!" he dismissed until he actually thought about it, trailing off on his previous argument. "Wait… isn't that his sister that's always with him?"

Katara slapped her forehead exasperatedly at her brother's obvious blunder and then walked away. "I can't believe that you're supposed to be a military genius."

"Wait, wait!" Sokka called out, catching up to his sister before she could leave the room. "If this isn't about Jiang Tzu… then what is this about?"

Katara bit her bottom lip thoughtfully as she fully comprehended what she had done. "I probably brought back all of Zuko's past demons when we were discussing my trust issues…"

Realizing what she meant, Sokka could only utter one thing, "Oh no…"

"What did you do?" Toph asked both angrily and incredulously.

He knew that what he had done was against her wishes, but he truly believed that it was for her own good. She would thank him for it in the future even if she didn't know it. Trying his best to keep a straight face on, Ling Tao answered as calmly as he could, "What I needed to do…" Opening his eyes, he bowed, and made to leave Toph's sleeping quarters.

Once he had left, Toph clenched her eyes shut and the sheets so tightly that her knuckles turned white. All this was happening too fast and too soon. "No… no… I'm not ready to face him yet…" Even though she had been wishing for this moment the past five years, it didn't seem quite as real as it did now. Now that things were finally happening, she had no idea how to deal with them, especially since she was currently trying her best to avoid him by purposely staying in her room.

He was deaf and blind to the world as he walked to the inn. Bystanders shot him weird looks but he paid them no heed. The moment he reached his room, he shut the door lightly behind him and stumbled a few steps over to his bed.

The mattress creaked under his weight, but he paid it no heed as his mind was elsewhere.

Ling Tao lied down and closed his eyes, willing the small tears that were forming not to fall. He needed to stay strong, even if his heart was aching. He was doing this for her own good… because he loved her and she deserved her happiness and being with him was something that he couldn't provide. It was something that only the Avatar could.

A/N: It's been a while since the last time I updated, hasn't it? I apologize for the wait. Life had gotten in the way and now that I have a bit more free time, I hope to finish this story soon. I'm not sure when, but hopefully it won't take too long for those of you who are still diligently following this little story of mine.

I've mentioned before that this story wasn't meant to be long or drawn out. At this point, I can say that I'm past the half-way point and I can see the end in sight, even if some of you think that it's too short. So, sit tight till the end. It's only a few more chapters left.