Chapter 24: Realizations
"Aang?" Toph called out, tracing her fingers across the wooden walls of the beach house as she walked from room to room. Toph actually missed the old air temple; the marble flooring was easy trace, and the earthbender could spend hours creating a mental map of the confusing pathways the old airbenders created years ago. But wood, wood she couldn't deal with.
Luckily a few grains of sand were spread across the wooden floor, probably brought in by the group after they traveled across the beach. While it wasn't much, it was enough for Toph to avoid knocking into walls, and she used the vibrations of the building to make her way towards Aang's room.
"Twinkletoes! If you make me cling to this stupid wood any longer I swear—"
Toph reached her hand out, feeling nothing but air as she realized she'd reached a threshold. Continuing through it she followed faint vibrations towads the center of the room, nearly tripping over Aang before she realized he was sitting.
"Aang?" she said, knelling onto the floor and reaching towards the airbender. Her fingers traced over cold skin, and she traveled upward until her fingertips brushed against Aang's eyes, which she realized were closed.
Toph scuffed, assuming Aang was conversing with his past lives, and continued her inspection. Though she never cared about apperances—being blind, it never really mattered—Toph was also curious, especially when it came to her friends. The earthbender used her fingertips to trace across Aang's skin, tapping her fingers now and then to sense for vibrations.
Suddenly Toph felt Aang's skin tense, and she quickly pulled her hand away, embarrassed.
"Um…" Aang mumbled, holding back a laugh.
"Just making sure you weren't dead," Toph mumbled, feeling the heat of a blush across her cheek. She looked away in an attempt to hide her face, when suddenly she felt fingers flutter against her own cheek, pulling her face the other way.
"Don't," Aang whispered, circling his fingers across her cheek as he cupped her face in his palm.
For a split second Toph relaxed, forgetting about the plans, Azula, and the unknown Avatar.
A split second was all it took for her to remember.
Toph quickly slapped Aang's hand away and pushed herself back, mentally yelling at herself for her stupidity.
"Toph…" Aang sighed, knowing that while he needed to give the earthbender her space, he also needed to explain himself.
"Save it, Twinkletoes," she said, getting up to leave. Aang grabbed her wrist to stop her, standing up to speak.
"I love you," he said, his warm fingers wrapped around her small wrist. "Not Katara. You."
Toph said nothing, surprised by Aang's words. Aang pulled her towards him, but Toph pulled her arm away, angry.
"I know you're blind, but why can't you see that?" Aang asked.
"Because I feel your hesitation when you say it! There's a hitch in your voice, as if you don't believe your own words, Twinkletoes. So why should I believe them?" Toph's pale cheeks were red with anger as she spoke, turning her back towards Aang and annoyed she didn't have any boulders to throw his way.
"I thought I loved Katara for a long time, Toph. You know that. But…Every time I see you, I feel more. And I know you can feel my heart nearly beat out of my chest. I know you can feel how I feel. I'm not the one who's confused here," he said, walking around Toph to face her.
Katara untwined her fingers from Zuko's, taking a step back as she faced the moon's reflection within the calm waves of the ocean.
"Now would probably be the time to say something," Zuko said, worried that Katara didn't feel the same way he did. He had just professed his love for her, and she just stood silent.
"I'm sorry Zuko. I—" Katara started, mentally praying to Yue for guidance. "I can't handle this right now." The waterbender brushed the back of her palm across her cheek as she left, realizing she was repeating the same actions she had once before with Aang.
"Wha—" Zuko said, surprised as he watched Katara run back towards the beach house. He cursed under his breath, not only as he realized he ruined everything, but because of the biggest consequence of his actions: he'd have to tell Toph.
And that was never good.
"I am not—" Toph started, completely annoyed.
"You are though, Toph. You only let people get so close, and then you start to push away. And that's what you're doing now. You're letting your stubborn streak get in the way, and you're pushing me back. When you started this in the first place."
Toph shook her head, frowning as she stormed towards Aang. Jabbing her finger at him, she spoke, "You can't tell me you don't feel anything for Katara, Aang. When I asked you if you still loved Sweetness, you said nothing. That tells me more than you would ever admit."
She turned to leave again, somehow surprised when Aang grabbed at her wrist. He pulled Toph towards him again, and this time she didn't resist.
"I didn't say anything because I was trying to tell you how I felt, Toph. I didn't want you to realize it before I could say it myself; before I was sure."
Aang traced his fingertips up and down Toph's bare arms as he spoke, finally stopping to rest them on her hips.
"I love you, Toph."
Toph bit her lip, unsure of herself, opening her mouth to speak before she was interrupted.
"Toph! Aang! Meeting, now!"
Zuko walked back into the beach house, surprised to find everyone crowded around the small living room again.
"Meeting," Toph mumbled, as Zuko took a seat beside her.
As the one who called the meeting, Iroh cleared his throat and nodded towards Mai, who stood to speak.
"Azula may be closer than we think," Mai sighed, avoiding eye contact with any of the people around her. She was aware that she had more enemies than allies in the room.
"What?" Sokka said, jumping up in surprise. "What do you mean? Did you lead her here?"
"No!" Ty Lee said, standing up beside Mai to support her friend. "Of course not!"
"When Azula uses her warship, she usually has to stop midway between the palace and her destination, to her annoyence, to let the benders who fuel the ship rest. The stop from the air temple to the palace is—"
"How long do we have until she gets here?"
"How long will she stay?"
"What do we do?"
Everyone started asking questions at once, only two members of the team staying silent. Aang stood up to speak just as Iroh did the same. The latter of the two caught the attention of the room by clearing his throat.
"My dear Katara, do you think I could have another cup of this Jasmine tea?" Iroh said, handing Katara his cup as his eyes traced over the other occupants of the room.
"There's no reason to panic," Iroh said simply, folding his hands under his robes as he sat back down. Everyone stared at the old man with shock on their faces, but no one spoke as they waited for him to explain.
"You think I would bring you here without a plan B? That wouldn't be very wise, now would it?" Iroh said, a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his face as he accepted a cup of steaming tea from Katara. "Thank you Miss Katara."
"Now that Steam has eased our panic, can we pack up and go now?" Toph said, annoyed by the sand…and the tension in the group.
Iroh laughed wholeheartedly at the nickname as he sipped his tea, keeping the cup warm with his bending.
"Wait!" Aang said, standing up before the room could empty. "I've got something important you all need to know."
The others turned owards Aang with worried glances as they once again took their seats.
"She contacted me," Aang said looking around the room. "The other Avatar."
"Can we give this poser a name?" Toph said, refusing to look Aang in the eye.
"When do you ever ask to give someone a nickname?" Zuko said, giving Toph a sideway glance and a smile.
Toph smiled back, but it wasn't her usually ear-to-ear smirk. "Mimic then."
"Fine," Aang said, expressing no emotion in his voice. "Mimic contacted me. She basically warned me, that this wasn't my battle."
"Well you can't be surprised about that," Sokka said.
"No. But that's not the important part. I saw where she was."
Everyone looked around at each other, surprised.
"How soon can we get you two into that temple?" Aang asked, turning towards Katara and Suki.
"How soon can you get us there?" Suki asked, already shouldering her bag.
"But—" Sokka protested, but both girls shoved their hands over his mouth.
"This isn't up for debate, Sokka," Katara said, grabbing her own bag.
"Then let's go. Now," Aang said, walking towards the door.
Everyone followed towards Appa, who groaned in response to seeing the entire gang.
"We'll have to split up, again," Aang said, mentally counting heads.
"Wait!" Toph said, frowning. "We're not doing this your way."
"Sparky, Steam, and I can travel in the balloon. The rest of you on Appa. Argue with me and I'll leave you here," the young earthbender said, grabbing Zuko's shoulder for support as she climbed into the balloon.
No one argued with her and the two groups split up, Iroh and Aang the last to split up as Iroh told the Avatar where they were headed.
"Let's get out of here," Toph mumbled, as the two groups rose into the air.
Little did they know they were being watched.