Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar. I'm merely borrowing Mike and Bryan's phenomenal characters and bending them to my will.
Thanks: To my longsuffering beta, who can never seem to get any rest because I keep pestering her with fic. You know I love you.
A/N: All the canon couples are featured prominently in this fic. But, I picked Sokka and Suki as the search characters because...well, it is their wedding.
Warning: This fic contains a crack pairing that some may find icky. I'm sure you know where it's headed based on the summary, therefore if it's not your cup of tea, now is the time to bow out.
References: The vows exchanged in this fic are taken from real Buddhist vows and are not my own. The blessing is the property of Lama Thubten Yeshe. I merely borrowed his beautiful and perfect words.
"I don't think that's a good idea at all!"
"What's not a good idea?" came Aang's unexpected answer to Sokka's pronouncement as he, Katara and Toph stepped inside Sokka's sparsely decorated ice hut.
Their entrance successfully quashed the ongoing argument between Sokka and Suki like nothing else could. The second they beheld Aang, Katara and Toph's smiling faces, all their irritation and frustration with each other melted away. Disgruntled frowns became laughing grins of surprise.
"I thought your message said you weren't going to make it," Sokka remarked as he stepped forward to enfold his sister in a tight hug.
"Well, it wouldn't have been much of a surprise if we'd let you know otherwise now, would it?" Katara answered wryly.
It had been much too long since the last time they'd seen one another. In the beginning, the world's political state had been precarious. Earth Kingdom skirmishes and the steady rebuilding of the devastated Southern Water Tribe had often kept the gang on separate sides of the world. Restoring balance, peace and security was no easy task and it had taken an inordinate amount of time. Consequently, during those busy years, the group had seen preciously little of one another, though they had been very diligent with keeping up regular correspondence.
There had been times when Aang, Katara and Toph were able to visit Zuko and Mai in the Fire Nation, but Kyoshi business had kept Sokka and Suki away. Then, there had been times when they would manage to come together in the South Pole to visit with Sokka and Katara's family, but then Zuko would unable to pull himself away from the capital. Still, there had been other times when Zuko and Sokka would coordinate a get together, only to have Aang miss out on it due to Avatar related duties. The times when they could come together as a whole group were few and far between.
Though they made an effort to reunite for the big events, such as Zuko and Mai's nuptials, the expansion of Iroh's teashop and even the formal announcement of Ursa's engagement a few months ago, those times were hardly enough. However, instead of eroding their friendship, time and distance served as the catalyst to strengthen it. Almost an entire year had passed since they were able to all be together in the same place at the same time and it had taken yet another major event to do it: Sokka and Suki's wedding.
Presently, Sokka rocked back on his heels to survey his sister. Not much had changed in the few months since he'd last seen her. Long ago, he'd grown accustomed to the striking resemblance she had to their mother, so it failed to shock him whenever he saw her now, though their father did still catch his breath every time. Sokka supposed it was difficult for their father to see his dead wife in the face of his daughter.
Katara's long, dark curls were pulled back in a loose ponytail that waved down the length of her back and was accented with her signature hair loopies and ever present blue beads. Because of the frigid climate in South Pole, she wore a heavy, hooded robe of dyed blue fabric that was edged with satiny white fur around the neckline and the hem. Her features were soft and sweet as they'd always been, her blue eyes glistening with joyful tears. However, beyond her tears, Sokka could detect a marked lack of restlessness behind her eyes. The emotional tumultuousness that had defined Katara for most of her adolescence was gone and replaced with tranquil contentment.
Sokka directed a glance over Katara's shoulder at Aang, smiling widely. "Are you still making my sister happy?" he teased unnecessarily.
"What do you think?" Aang tossed back with a lopsided smile. "Doesn't she look happy?" One glance at Katara answered that perfectly. She was practically beaming. Aang grinned at Sokka and opened his arms wide. "Come on. Where's the love?"
While many things had changed about Aang in the last few years, his fun-loving and carefree manner remained ever present. His constant duties as the Avatar had mellowed him a bit. He didn't break into spontaneous play or pull reckless stunts nearly as much as he had when he was young. At eighteen years of age, he was a great deal more reserved, but at his core Aang remained an incurable prankster and an all-time lover of fun.
As the two young men converged in a brief, yet jovial hug, Suki moved into Sokka's vacated spot to dispense her own greetings to Katara. Meanwhile, Sokka noted, with some annoyance, that Aang had actually grown another inch since he'd seen him last. By now, the young Avatar was at least half a head taller than everyone else in the group, including Zuko. The change had necessitated yet another alteration to his traditional robes, which now consisted of loose fitting trousers and a simple toga of orange and yellow draped across his torso. His dramatic growth had been a surprise to everyone because, for quite a long while, the only person Aang had beaten out in the height department was Toph.
However, while Aang had grown up, he hadn't grown out. He remained slender of build, though his physique was sleek and agile and leanly muscled. To look at him, a person wouldn't immediately know he had the distinction of being in the company of the most powerful bender in the world. He appeared a genial young man with perfectly, though not classically arranged features, guileless gray eyes and an exceedingly charming personality to match. He had an easy smile and an even easier demeanor. There wasn't a single thing about Aang that could be described as intimidating or forbidding and yet, he could crush an enemy in a single blow if he chose to do so.
"It really is good to see you again, Aang," Sokka said, clapping an affectionate hand on Aang's shoulder. "Welcome home."
"It's good to be home," Aang murmured. Despite Aang's nomadic existence and the technical fact that he was not a native, the South Pole and Katara's home village had become as close to home to him as the Southern Air Temple had once been. Whenever he returned for a visit, he always felt like he belonged.
Behind them Toph cleared her throat obnoxiously. "Um hello?" she griped. "What about me? I'm standing right here too."
Of all the radical changes that had taken place within the group's dynamic, Toph had to be the most radical. Though she stood only a scant few inches taller than she had at twelve years of age, the mouthy, opinionated, independent tomboy had blossomed into a very pretty, very curvy, mouthy, opinionated independent woman with definite tomboy tendencies. The signs had always been there that she was destined to become quite striking, but that fact was never something Toph or her friends had given much attention.
Her manner of dress reflected that as well. Rather than accentuating her beauty with flamboyant styles and colors, Toph wore a plain green, sleeveless tunic, wide belled trousers that stopped mid-ankle and bare feet. Her single vanity was a small, green and black tattoo of the Earth Kingdom symbol on the back of her left shoulder that she had begged Aang to give to her only a few years earlier. It had been a whim and mostly provoked by her rampant curiosity over his tattoos. Though she couldn't technically see it, Toph felt sexier just knowing it existed.
However, despite her loose fitting clothing and general disinterest, the voluptuous swells and valleys womanhood had brought her were impossible to miss. It was difficult sometimes for people to reconcile Toph's delicately boned features and perfect feminine shape with the tough, masculine veneer she presented to the world. People, even her own parents, didn't know what to make of her and Toph knew it. She liked it. She liked throwing them off balance.
As Sokka scooped her up in a tight bear hug, Toph waited for the familiar rush of longing she'd always felt whenever she was in his presence. She hugged him back and waited for the prickling pain that came along with the acknowledgment of her unrequited love for him. She was surprised to realize, however, that the only thing she felt was the sheer happiness anyone would feel over seeing an old and dear friend. There was no pain, no longing…only joy.
"You can let go now," she teased him a few seconds later. "Your beard is starting to make me itch." But he didn't let go. In fact, a few seconds later, Suki joined them, followed by Aang and Katara. They clung to one another in a poignant embrace. More than a few tears were shed. The five friends traded an emotional laugh over their obvious sentimentality.
"We're so pathetic," Sokka muttered when they finally separated, wiping surreptitiously at his eyes while Katara and Suki overtly brushed away their falling tears.
Aang shrugged. "I think it's healthy that we're able to display our affection for one another so openly," he commented in a matter of fact tone, grinning.
Right on cue, Toph responded with a zinging punch to his upper arm. "You would!" she snorted, rolling her eyes. "Little wonder we think you find a new reason to live up to your nickname every day."
"I love you too, Toph," Aang replied mildly, not the least bit perturbed by her teasing or the wicked punch she'd delivered. The teasing he knew was done in love, the punch…well, his bicep had grown numb to her particular brand of affectionate abuse a long time ago.
"Wow!" Suki breathed, unable to stop smiling. "You guys look so amazing. Constant travel through the Earth Kingdom obviously agrees with you."
"Actually, no. It doesn't," Toph contradicted bluntly. "If I don't ever set foot in the Earth Kingdom again, it will be too soon. The more distance I put between me and my crazy parents, the better!"
They were still chuckling over Toph's adamant declaration when Sokka asked Katara, "So have Dad and Gran Gran seen you yet?"
She shook her head. "We landed Appa and came straight here. We wanted to give both you and Suki our congratulations in person. You guys waited long enough."
"That means so much, Katara," Suki replied with a warm smile. "When Sokka and I got your message that you guys might not come…"
"It was really hard tricking you," Aang admitted with a thread of contrition, which he completely ruined a mere second later when he added irreverently, "but so worth it to see the looks on your faces when you saw us."
Suki gave him a playful shove. "You are so wrong!"
"Come on," Sokka said, taking hold of his sister's hand and dragging her towards the door. "Let's go see Dad and Gran Gran."
Hakoda reacted to the sight of his daughter approaching him much the way he always did. For a moment, he froze, blinking his eyes rapidly as if he were beholding an apparition. Even in broad daylight, it was evident he was questioning whether his eyes were playing tricks on him. And then he relaxed, a mixture of sadness and acceptance darkening his features before they became aglow with joy. He rose slowly from his sitting position and opened his arms wide. "Katara."
She ran into his arms in the same manner she had when she was a little girl and buried her face in his chest, hugging him close. "I missed you so much, Dad."
He pressed a paternal kiss to her hair. "I've missed you too." Making an effort to be as unobtrusive as possible, Aang, Sokka, Suki and Toph hung back respectfully, but Hakoda zeroed in on the young Avatar. He inclined his head in a nod. "Aang," he greeted formally. "My daughter appears in good health and good spirits. Do I have you to thank for this?"
"I'd like to think I'm partially responsible," Aang replied sheepishly, earning wide grins from both Hakoda and Katara.
"Get over here!" Hakoda ordered him affectionately. "All of you," he clarified when he spied the childish pouts on Sokka, Suki and Toph's faces.
For the second time in the space of ten minutes, they engaged in a group hug with Gran Gran and even Pakku joining in this time. None of them seemed to give much attention to the curious stares they received from fellow villagers passing through the village square. Their family had been reunited and, for the moment, that was the only thing that mattered.
"So how long can you stay this time?" Gran Gran asked Katara when they all parted. As much as she looked forward to her granddaughter visiting, those times also came with a healthy dose of dread for when she would leave again.
Katara slid a questioning glance over at Aang who answered with a subtle nod. "I think we might be able to make our visit indefinite this time," she answered carefully.
"Even Toph?" Suki queried.
"I'm on vacation," the blind earthbender provided succinctly.
Sokka almost leapt with excitement over the implications in that statement. He turned a hopeful look towards his sister. "So you're coming home for good then?" he burst out.
"Now, I didn't say that," Katara prefaced quickly. "But I don't see any reason why we have to rush off too soon afterwards either."
The declaration was good enough for Hakoda. He was smiling from ear to ear over her answer. "I'll take it."
Afterwards, they sat together in the center of the village for the next hour, casually chatting about the progress that had been made in the Earth Kingdom and the Southern Water Tribe since the war ended. Though it had taken some years, the Earth Kingdom provinces and the Fire Nation had finally reached a state of relative tranquility. Occasional rebellions still broke out, but they were always quickly squashed and were nowhere on the scale that they had been directly following the war. As for the Southern Water Tribe, it had steadily rebuilt itself almost to the point where it was flourishing much the way it had before Sozin launched the war. Better still, Katara was no longer the last of the Southern Waterbenders.
With new era of peace laid before them, the group now realized they didn't have to spend so much time apart anymore. Thoughts and plans now turned to deciding permanent residences and contemplating their futures together. The fierce desire to catch up and reconnect was exactly the reason the most pertinent question on everyone's mind was: "Where are Zuko and Mai?"
"They should be here later this evening," Suki assured them. "Iroh, Ursa and Komo too."
Toph perked up at the mention of the "Dragon of the West." "Iroh's coming?" she questioned with a secret smile. "Sweet."
"And don't forget the other Kyoshi warriors and Oyagi…eh, pretty much most of Kyoshi Island," Sokka piped in. "Also, Master Piandao. He's traveling with Zuko and Mai. Everyone else should be here by tomorrow."
"That weird foaming guy too?" Katara asked with a grimace.
"Him too," Sokka confirmed.
"Great," was Katara's sour reply. "Now all we need is the cabbage merchant."
"Would you believe Sokka sent him an invitation?" Suki remarked dryly.
Aang shook his head wryly at that revelation. "Wow," he breathed in amazement. "Between Zuko's family and royal entourage and Kyoshi Island, not to mention Toph's parents and all of our friends in the Earth Kingdom and the Northern Water Tribe, this wedding is going to be craa-zee."
"I know it…" Sokka said with a wide smile of satisfaction.
"I hope we have enough food," Gran Gran grunted dryly.
"I hope we have ear plugs," Pakku added grumpily. "I'll need them."
Sokka looped an arm around his shoulder. "You know you love us, Gran-Pakku!"
With extreme distaste, Pakku lifted Sokka's hand and removed it from his shoulder. "Have you ever heard what they say about assuming?" he asked his step grandson.
"Do I want to know?" Sokka queried warily.
"Probably not," came Pakku's sardonic reply.
While everyone snickered behind their hands at that, Aang asked, "So what's the plan for tonight? Does Sokka get a send off party or what?"
"Send off party?" Katara echoed blankly. "What are you talking about?"
"You know…one last bash before he loses his freedom and hey…ow!" Aang ended in a surprised yelp when Suki rewarded his explanation with a flying snowball to the head. He gaped at her in shocked confusion. "Um…why?" he bleated, bending away the frigid chunks of snow and ice. "What was that for?"
"Loses his freedom?'' Suki parroted in affront. "Could you make it sound any less romantic, Aang?"
Toph choked on her laughter. "Seriously, Twinkle Toes, you had that one coming! Even I knew better than to phrase it that way!"
"Well, it's not my phrasing," Aang retorted defensively. "I'm just repeating what Sokka told me."
At this bit of information, Sokka received his own snowball, this one to the face, followed by a few more thrown by his own sister and grandmother. He growled at Aang as he scooped snow from his eyes. "Way to go, Aang. Why do you have to take everybody down with you?"
Aang threw a helpless glance at Katara, who was fighting to hold back her eruption of giggles. Her reddening cheeks and tightly compressed lips were a dead giveaway, however. Aang shook his head at her in mock chagrin. "I thought you were on my side," he pouted, which only caused Katara to lose her battle not to laugh altogether. In the end, Aang hardly minded though. At the moment, it was difficult to think of a single thing he enjoyed more than watching Katara laugh.
"Okay, so what were you and Sokka fighting about before?"
It seemed that Aang hadn't been too far off the mark in assuming that Sokka had a party in store, though their father had described it more as a rite of passage rather than a formal goodbye to freedom. Whatever way they decided to phrase it, however, both Katara and Suki suspected the men's good time would be filled with debauchery. That was why they weren't completely surprised when Toph opted to hang out with the men, rather than stick with them and help in preparing Sokka's hut for Zuko and Mai's arrival. Already, the village was beginning to come alive with the sounds of their drunken laughter and bawdy jokes, and the sun hadn't even gone down yet.
Together, Katara and Suki passed the time tidying up, but the entire time they worked Katara had been obsessing over the scene she, Toph and Aang had stumbled upon. Katara hated to think that, on the eve of their wedding, her brother and his fiancée were having problems. She tried to school herself not to be nosy and to wait on Suki to broach the subject first, but when it became apparent the older woman was not going to do that, Katara couldn't keep herself in check any longer.
At Katara's abrupt question, Suki straightened, momentarily forgetting her task of arranging the fur pallet. She smoothed her hands down the front of her heavy blue over-shirt. For a brief second, she appeared conflicted before masking her feelings behind a neutral façade. "It wasn't a big deal," she dismissed lightly. "You know Sokka and me…we're always at each other's throats over one thing or another."
"That didn't seem like a typical fight between you two," Katara pressed gently. "You seemed sort of…I don't know…serious?"
"Really, Katara, it was nothing," Suki insisted. "We're still getting married in a few days, if that's what you're worried about." She punctuated the last of that statement with a laugh, but it sounded hollow and forced to Katara.
"I just want to make sure everything is okay," Katara said.
Everything inside Katara wanted to badger Suki for the truth. She knew something was wrong and it went against her nature not to do everything in her power to fix it. However, Aang had taught her that she couldn't force her help on people, even when she was acting in their best interests because they would only resent her efforts. It was simply better if she made herself readily available to them if they decided to ask for assistance.
She was surprised when, only a few minutes later, Suki did just that. "Why do you think Toph doesn't have a boyfriend?" she blurted abruptly.
Katara pivoted to face her with a perplexed frown. "What?"
"I mean, she's pretty, right?" Suki pressed on erratically.
"And she…um…likes boys, doesn't she?" Suki prodded further.
Frown deepening, Katara stammered, "Well…uh…yeah, um…sure she does. I think she does." She went pensively silent for a moment. "You know, I've never really asked her about it."
"Well, maybe that's why…" Suki murmured to herself.
"Why Sokka practically has a mental breakdown every time I even casually mention fixing Toph up with a guy," Suki clarified. "Maybe that's the problem. Maybe Toph just doesn't like men."
"Of course, Toph likes men." At Mai's sudden and unexpected dry rebuttal, both young women spun around to face their friend. "You know she's in love with Sokka, though I do see how the man part confuses you."
"What?" Suki cried in disbelief.
"Okay, okay…don't get upset. Sokka's a man," Mai relented sardonically. "There. You happy?"
"Wait a minute," Suki said, shaking her head as if disorientated. "What do you mean Toph is in love with Sokka?"
It hit Mai belatedly that she had made a blunder. Unfortunately, it was too late to back pedal. Suki was already visibly upset. Mai emitted a small grunt of mortification. "You mean you didn't know?" she concluded with some consternation.
"Of course, I didn't know!" Suki cried, pinning Katara with a betrayed glare.
Her future sister-in-law threw up her hands in horrified surrender. "Don't look at me! I didn't know either."
"Okay, well…before you grill me, can I please sit down?" Mai groaned, smoothing a hand down the slope of her distended abdomen. As Katara and Suki rushed over to flank her and assist her to the nearest chair, she added dramatically, "I've got to put my feet up now or someone is going to die."
At nearly five months pregnant with the next heir to the Fire Nation throne, Mai's temperament was more sour than usual. Constant backaches, swollen feet and her unquenchable appetite had not helped to sweeten her disposition. She was more sarcastic, blunt, disinterested and crabbier than ever before and, ironically, the change only served to endear her to her friends even more. Because while Mai was certainly not a barrel of laughs these days, there was no disputing that pregnancy was agreeing with her.
Radiant was too mild a word to describe how utterly lovely she looked. Her already glossy hair was even glossier and was now worn in a tight bun at the top of her head while the remainder of her thick, straight locks flowed down past her hips. Her features were glowing and healthy and, dressed in her formal, crimson robes, trimmed with intricate gold thread and precious rubies, she looked every inch the royalty she was. Suki and Katara might have gushed over that fact, especially considering that this was the first time they'd seen her since she and Zuko had announced her pregnancy, but both were too busy reeling over the completely unexpected reveal that Toph was in love with Sokka.
"What gives you the idea that Toph is in love with Sokka?" Katara demanded. "Did she tell you that?"
"Katara, everybody knows," Mai sighed in exasperation.
"Who's everybody?" Katara asked. "I didn't know."
"I did," Mai stressed for emphasis. "And Aang and Zuko and Iroh too. Even Komo and Ursa know. I thought it was common knowledge, kind of like how everyone knows that Ty Lee had a thing for Sokka a long time ago too."
"What? Are you telling me that Ty Lee is in love with my fiancé as well?" Suki screeched. "Is this a joke? What's going on?"
"Oh, good grief," Mai groaned, dropping her face into her hands. "It just gets worse and worse."
"Hold on a second," Katara half laughed, half choked. "Did you just say Aang knew about this?" Her eyes narrowed in displeasure with the implication. "My Aang?" Mai nodded slowly. "He definitely knew?" Yet another wary nod of confirmation from Mai. Katara growled under her breath, digesting that kernel of knowledge with mounting aggravation. "He's dead," she hissed. "He is soo dead."
"Does…does Sokka know?" Suki queried almost reluctantly. When she thought of the fight they'd had earlier that day, Suki was almost afraid to hear Mai's answer. "Is he aware that Toph has feelings for him?"
"No, he doesn't know," Mai answered firmly. "For the most part, he's as clueless as the two of you. To her credit, Toph's pretty good about hiding her feelings."
"Then how did you find out?" Katara demanded a little peevishly.
"Zuko overheard a conversation between Aang and Toph shortly after Suki and Sokka got engaged," Mai explained. "From what I understand…she took it a little hard. I guess she knew you guys were together, but it didn't really click for her that you were together until Sokka proposed. She didn't want to bring everyone down because we were all so happy and excited for you guys, but she did unload on Aang."
"And Zuko told you what happened?" Suki concluded.
Mai answered with a terse bob of her head. "And his uncle Iroh and his mother, who in turn, mentioned it to Komo, which is why he knows too."
"Wow…that husband of yours… He's certainly a master of secrets," Katara mocked, rolling her eyes.
"It wasn't like that," Mai defended and then grimaced sourly. "Though you're right, don't ever tell Zuko a secret and expect him to keep it. He generally sucks in that area."
The assertion wasn't entirely true, but given that Zuko had been the one to blab about her pregnancy even before Mai had adjusted to the reality of the situation, she was not feeling too magnanimous towards him in that regard. Once he learned of his impending fatherhood, it would have taken an act of divine intervention to keep his mouth shut. "Really though," she continued wryly, "he wasn't gossiping. He wanted to help Toph. He went to Iroh and his mother for advice on how to make her feel better."
"So, I guess that's why Iroh's been so attentive to her this last year, huh?" Suki murmured aloud thoughtfully. "He was trying to make her feel better because he knew she was in love with her best friend."
"Poor Toph," Katara whispered. "It must have been awful for her." When she noticed Suki's reactive wince in her peripheral vision, Katara cringed. "Sorry, Suki."
"No. It's okay. I feel the same. She must have been miserable this whole time," Suki mumbled sadly.
"Oh please," Mai sighed with a mock gag. "Enough with the pity, ladies! You act like Toph is going to shrivel up and die from unrequited love. Have you seen her? She's not exactly hurting in the looks department! She could have any guy she wants with a snap of her fingers. Don't worry about her. She'll be fine."
"You really think that?" Suki pressed hopefully.
"She'll be fine," Mai repeated, without the slightest hint of concern. "Now, if this angst fest is over, what does a cranky pregnant lady have to do to get some food around here?"
"So…Suki totally wants to fix you up with her cousin Cho."
Toph blinked at Sokka blearily, her head more than a little fuzzy due to the strong wine they'd been imbibing for the last few hours. "Sorry…whuh did you say?"
"She's trying to get you a man," Sokka clarified succinctly.
Squinting in the firelight, Toph brought the wine jug to her lips for another draught before passing it over to Sokka. "Why would she wanna go and do something like that for?" she slurred.
"Dunno," Sokka replied drunkenly after a deep chug. "But she's obsessed with the idea, I tell ya! Obsessed! Every time I think I've talked her down…bam! Here we go again!"
"You fight about me?" Toph concluded incredulously.
"We fight because she thinks you feel left out because you're alone and we're not," Sokka said. "But I tell her, I say…Suki, she's Toph and it sounds like tough," he and Toph finished in unison. Seconds later they erupted into noisy snorting laughter. "She just doesn't get it," Sokka mumbled a moment later.
Toph grimaced in agreement at that. "Your lady's weird, Sokka."
"Like…I know," he quipped in a lazy drawl. "I've told her over and over! Toph is too awesome for your meatheads, Suki! She's too awesome!"
His fervent reply provoked a lopsided smile from Toph. "You really think I'm awesome, Sokka?" she whispered.
He leaned in, crooking his finger at her to beckon her closer. "Next to Suki," he revealed in a loud, conspiratorial whisper, "I think you're the most awesome girl I've ever known and you deserve someone just as awesome."
"And who's that?" she asked in a trembling murmur.
Their eyes melded for an intense moment before Sokka sat up abruptly. "Dunno!" he declared with a pensive frown, finding that the question was suddenly an issue for him. Who really could match Toph's extreme awesomeness?
Sokka certainly didn't think such a person existed, but he felt the need to put his theory to the test regardless. He nudged Zuko, who was slumped next to him half-unconscious. "Psst, Zuko," he said in a loud stage whisper, "Who do you think is awesome enough for Toph?"
Zuko cracked open one bleary eye. "You wanna know who for what now?" he asked fuzzily.
"Toph," Sokka stressed impatiently. "If there was a guy out there to match Toph's awesomeness, who do you think it would be?"
"You're trying to find a guy who can earthbend as well as Toph?" Zuko concluded. He shrugged at the consideration. "I dunno. Maybe Bumi…"
"Not hardly!" Toph snorted. "I'm insulted!"
"No, no, no, no…focus, man!" Sokka grated impatiently. "I'm not talking about earthbending. I'm talking about whether there's a guy out there who is truly deserving…you know…someone worthy of her. I don't believe there is…she's too good. She's just too good."
"Wait…what are you saying? Are you talking about setting Toph up?" Zuko recoiled in masculine horror. "Sokka, that's what women do…or maybe Aang."
The aforementioned popped straight up at that statement, jug of wine forgotten. "Hey now!" Aang cried in affront. "I'm not too drunk to kick you around this ca—,"
"Guys, guys!" Toph soothed in smooth interruption. "As much as this chick fight amuses me…it's not necessary. I'm pretty happy. I don't need a guy." However, in seeming contradiction of those very words, she rose unsteadily to her feet, her features suddenly shuttered. "I think I'm going to walk around," she said. "I need to clear my head."
"You see what you did?" Zuko hissed as she walked away. "You totally disgusted her with all that matchmaker talk!"
"I disgusted her?" Sokka cried. "You were the one mooning over the joys of impending fatherhood and Mai's pregnancy 'glow' not too long ago! If anybody disgusted her, it was you and your baby babble!"
While Sokka and Zuko embroiled in a heated discussion about which one of them was, indeed, the more girly Aang watched with speculative half-lidded eyes as Toph disappeared to the other side of the camp. Worried that she may be nursing hurt over all the relationship talk, Aang shifted to his feet and went after her, leaving Zuko and Sokka still bickering in his wake. He found her not too far from the center of the village, pressed back into the shadows between the walls of two ice huts. As he moved closer, however, Aang realized that she wasn't weeping in solitude as he had feared, but actually watching a scene playing out some yards in front of her. In the flickering firelight, he could detect her faint smile.
Upon closer inspection, Aang quickly discovered exactly what had her rapt attention. The old masters of the esteemed Lotus Society, Iroh, Pakku and Piandao, were sitting around their campfire before Iroh's tent, regaling one another with stories about "the good old days" and how the new generation just didn't get it. Aang was about to roll his eyes over this new variation of a very old complaint when he realized that Toph wasn't actually listening to their conversation at all. Or, rather she wasn't paying attention to it as a whole. No, something, someone in particular had her captivated…Iroh.
Every time he spoke or made a joke or even offered tea, her smile widened. And it was not just any smile either. It was a soft smile. An endearing smile. An un-Toph-like smile. Aang recognized the expression on her face immediately because he'd sported it enough times himself to be more than familiar with its implications. He knew exactly what it meant. Aang's mouth fell open in dubious shock as full realization came crashing down on him.
Toph had a crush on Iroh.
It was his stunned intake of breath that alerted Toph to his presence. She had been so wrapped up in listening to Iroh that she hadn't even sensed his approach at all or registered his presence until he'd made a sound. "What are you doing?" she hissed in aggravation. "Did you follow me? What did you see, Aang?"
"Are you…do you…does that…" He couldn't seem to finish a single one of his sentences, but the wild pointing he did in Iroh's direction more than sufficed. Toph knew immediately that whatever he had seen was too much.
In absolute horror, Toph launched herself at him and tackled Aang to the ground, clamping her hand to his mouth before he could give them both away. "Don't say a word," she warned, "or I will be forced to hurt you." Aang's eyes widened in understanding and he jerked a terse nod. "Now, if I take my hand from your mouth," Toph prefaced, "will you promise to keep your big, fat trap shut?" Again, Aang nodded. Satisfied, Toph relaxed and removed her hand before rolling to her feet. Aang followed suit, but continued to regard her with dismayed incredulity. He said not a single word.
"Well?" Toph prodded impatiently when his silence stretched on for an interminable amount of time.
"You told me not to say anything!" Aang reminded her.
"Well, I take it back!" she retorted capriciously. "Now you know. Don't you have anything to say about it?"
Aang had plenty to say about it. The questions were buzzing around in his brain like a horde of gnat-ants. Unfortunately, verbalizing those questions proved to be a problem. In the end, he could only manage a stammered, "When? How? I thought you were still dealing with the Sokka thing."
"I was," Toph admitted in a candid whisper, "and, in a strange way, Iroh helped me to get over that."
"You're over it now?" For Aang, it seemed much too simple, not when he had known she had been in love with Sokka for nearly half a decade.
Suspecting his line of reasoning, Toph said, "It's not what you're thinking."
"Then what is it?" Aang demanded.
She shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "Every time we all got together you guys were always paired off. It was either you and Katara, or Zuko and Mai, or Sokka and Suki, and I was always the odd man out. It didn't bother me at first," she continued with a sigh, "I preferred being alone. But, as I got older, it wasn't so fun anymore. Being around you guys was painful sometimes, especially when I was around Sokka and Suki.
"So I started hanging out with Iroh whenever you guys were busy doing whatever it was you did and, well…Iroh is a sweet guy and fun and funny." She turned away slightly, obviously caught up in the relieved joy of relating the feelings she'd harbored secret for so long. "He was so easy to talk to," Toph explained, "and I found out that he and I have a lot in common. He seemed to understand me without me needing to say a word, and when I was with him, I didn't feel so lonely. This past year, since Suki and Sokka got engaged, he's been amazing to me and…well, I guess I started thinking of him as more than just a sweet old guy." She smiled to herself, thinking of Sokka's earlier words to her. "He's actually pretty awesome."
Aang stood there for a long while, his jaw working ineffectually as he groped for something appropriate to say. Finally, he settled with an awkwardly lame, "Well…that's interesting."
"Interesting?" Toph parroted in disappointment.
"And good," Aang tacked on weakly.
Toph folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. "You think it's weird, don't you?"
"I'm not judging you, Toph."
His vague response put her on the immediate defensive. "So that's a yes then," she concluded with an offended snort.
"No. That's an 'I'm in total shock right now,'" Aang clarified sharply. "Until a few minutes ago, I thought you were still in love with Sokka. Now you're telling me you've got a thing for Iroh." He collapsed back into the snow, smoothing both his hands over the crown of his skull. "Give me a minute to adjust, Toph!"
She folded down beside him, seemingly as impervious to the compacted ice beneath them as Aang was. Sighing, she drew her knees to her chest and looped her arms around them loosely. "Okay. So when you adjust, let me know what you think."
"Deal," Aang said, dropping his head between his knees. In the darkness, Toph blindly contemplated the crown of her friend's tattooed skull and counted the number of his ragged breaths. From the sounds of it, Toph was pretty sure he was freaking out. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry over the realization because, as hilarious as Aang was when he had a meltdown, she sorely wanted him to hold it together. She really needed his advice at the moment.
It seemed to take an eternity before Aang spoke again but, when he did, he sounded very calm and put together, even thoughtful. "So…are we talking about a crush here or something more than that?"
"I…I think it might be something more than that," Toph confessed, half in relief, half in pure terror. "Aang, what do I do?"
"You're asking me?" he balked. "Toph, first of all, I'm half drunk and in no condition to be handing out advice. Second of all, I've only had one relationship in my whole life, at least only one that I can remember! I don't know if I'm the person you should be asking about this stuff."
"You're the best person," Toph refuted. "You've lived a thousand times over thousands of years, Aang. If you can't help me then I don't know who can." He regarded her with a woeful stare as she asked again, "So what do I do?"
"What do you want to do?" Aang countered softly.
For the second time that night, Toph lifted her shoulders in an uncertain shrug, her expression visibly conflicted. "I go back and forth," she confessed. "Sometimes I think I want to just lay my feelings out there and sometimes I don't know if it's worth it. I don't want to get hurt. But then, I think about Sokka and how I never told him how I felt and I can't help but wonder if it would have made a difference if I had.
"In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't say anything because Suki is good for him and he's good for her and I wouldn't have wanted to mess up our friendship for anything. Besides, I like Suki so much…she's a riot," she pondered aloud. "Still, it would be a lie if I said I didn't wonder sometimes. I guess I don't want to spend the next five years of my life wondering about Iroh too."
"So then you know what you have to do," Aang told her.
"What would you do?"
Aang didn't even have to ponder the question. "I'd take a chance," he answered immediately. "You already know that I loved Katara for a long, long time before I ever said anything to her about it. Well, on the day of the Invasion, I just couldn't hold it inside me anymore. I didn't want to take the chance of never coming back and her not knowing how I felt so…I did something about it. I kissed her when we were on top of the submarine."
Toph gaped at him. "So that's why you guys were acting so weird when we got to the Western Air Temple!" she cried in dawned understanding.
"I think we were both kind of avoiding the subject," Aang recalled. "In hindsight, kissing her that day didn't have the results I hoped it would. Things got complicated and confusing afterwards, but…I don't regret it. Working up the nerve to kiss her that day was probably one of the hardest and most important things I've ever done. I didn't know if it would blow up in my face or if I would get everything I ever wanted. The point was, whether I failed or succeeded, I didn't want to be scared anymore."
For the first time since she had voiced her feelings, really since she'd even acknowledged them to herself, Toph felt at peace. "Twinkle Toes, I know I tease you a lot about your sensitivity and being girly sometimes," she sighed in growing admiration, "but honestly…you're one of the manliest men I have ever known."
"Thanks, Toph," Aang whispered in return, favoring her with an affectionate grin. "I feel the same way about you." Fortunately, he had the good sense to roll out of the path of her responding punch.
"So how did your talk with Toph go?"
Aang paused in the act of feeding both Appa and Momo their late night snack to flash his girlfriend an unguarded smile of pure pleasure. Both the lemur and the bison protested over the loss of their master's attention, but when they recognized Katara stepping out of the shadows, they both settled down. The two young lovers quickly closed the distance between each other, coming together near the gaping entrance of the drafty cave. As Aang swept his arms around her, Katara leaned up on her tiptoes to give him a very long and very thorough kiss. When she finally pulled away Aang's soft gray eyes were dark and luminous and his breath was coming in shallow pants. He stared down at her in speechless approval, his gaze full of question.
"I guess I just missed you," Katara replied with a shrug.
"I approve. You should miss me more often," Aang laughed, pulling her close for another long kiss. Eventually, Momo's frustrated chittering over the delay for with his treat as well as his frenetic darting over their shoulders and heads broke them apart.
"Wow, somebody's crabby tonight," Aang joked, dutifully extricating himself from the circle of Katara's arms to give Momo a moon peach. While the lemur munched happily, Aang tossed a curious smile over his shoulder at Katara. "It's late. What are you doing up?"
"Well, when Sokka told me that you and Toph were having some kind of 'intense' discussion, I came down here," she explained. "I didn't know how long you'd be and I know how much Momo and Appa like having their late night snacks." While he tended to Momo, Katara placed before Appa the bundles of dried fruit and vegetables she'd brought. As he munched gratefully, Katara cooed sweet words to the bison, pressing tender kisses to the top of his nose. Aang smiled over the loving display.
"Thank you for taking such good care of them."
"You don't have to thank me," Katara dismissed. "They belong to both of us, Aang. Momo and Appa are my responsibility too. That's what couples do, right? They share things." The meaningful glare she directed his way sailed completely over his head. Katara grunted her exasperation.
"You're right…I'm glad we share things," Aang agreed, dropping down onto a nearby boulder after Momo confiscated the entire bag of peaches and quickly skirted off to enjoy his pilfered booty.
"So…" Katara drawled rather casually, moving to deposit herself into his lap, "did you and Toph have a nice talk?"
With a deeply contented sigh, Aang pulled her closer and nuzzled the warm base of her throat. "Yeah, it was okay," he mumbled. "Hmm…you smell nice."
She hummed her approval over that though she was staunchly determined not to let his tender ministrations distract her. Katara captured his face between her hands, dodging his questing lips as she angled a look down at him. "It was just okay?"
Katara was a woman on a mission. Her most instinctive reaction was to fly at him with angry accusations after what she had learned earlier that evening. That he had known for years that Toph was in love with Sokka and yet had not said a single word to her about it both hurt and confused Katara. It was a huge secret to keep. She wasn't so much disappointed that he had kept it secret, but that he had kept it from her. That was bothering her more than anything else. Was it lack of trust that had kept him from saying anything to her or something else?
Aggravation had her yearning to grill him like a freshly caught mackerel. Wisely though, Katara recognized attacking Aang would get her nowhere fast. He would only verbally evade her, before clamming up and retreating altogether. She'd be left more frustrated than when she started. Considering that, Katara knew she had to be subtle and delicate. Essentially, she was going to have to coax the information out of him.
Her lips curving in a wide, seemingly guileless smile, Katara executed her plan by lightly massaging the tips of Aang's ears. As she expected, his eyes began rolling with delight almost the second she began. "You were gone an awfully long time just for an 'okay' talk," she observed.
Aang swallowed down the moans of pleasure her sweet attention threatened to erupt. "N-Not really," he stammered, eyes falling closed. "Toph and I were…uh…just kidding…ah…around. You…um…hmm…you know how we are. Wow, that's really good…what you're doing…"
She nuzzled against his ear lobe. "Hmm…yes, I do know how you are," she whispered, her breath stirring against his sensitive skin. "What did you two talk about?" When she dared to flick his ear with the tip of her tongue, he couldn't suppress his responsive groan. "So?" she prodded. "Tell me."
He began drifting his own kisses across her collarbone. "It was just stuff," he murmured into her skin.
"What kind of stuff?"
"Personal stuff," Aang whispered, lips skating lower. "Can't tell…"
"You can't tell me?" Katara pressed.
The mild censure and disappointment he detected in her tone had Aang lifting his head. Gradually, the haze of desire cleared and he regarded her seriously, his dark eyes swirling with a confusing mix of emotions. "No. Not even you, Katara," he answered hesitantly. "Please, don't take it personally."
Pouting, Katara tentatively fingered the edge of his wrap, unable to meet his eyes directly. "Well…what if I told you I already knew all about it?" she ventured.
"You know?" he guffawed in disbelief.
The skepticism in his tone as well as his cocky grin had Katara grinding her teeth. She fixed him with a glower. "What if Toph told me everything?" she challenged.
"Well then, if that's so, why are you asking me?" Aang retorted somewhat smugly.
At that point, Katara gave up her pretense altogether. She smacked his shoulder in growling annoyance. "Oh, just tell me what she said!" she cried.
"No, Katara!" Belatedly, the motivation behind her aggressive foreplay became apparent to him. He stared at her with a mixture of shock, amusement and wariness. "Is that what this was about?" he wondered, gesturing to the suggestive way she was draped across him. "Were you trying to seduce it out of me?"
"This isn't about me!" Katara snapped unfairly. "You're the one keeping secrets!"
"Katara, don't get me wrong," Aang laughed, "I love having you all over me, but, as tempting as you are, I'm not telling you anything."
"Fine!" she huffed, hopping off his lap in a whirl of blue fabric and wild curls. "But I already know all about her little crush anyway, okay!" She leveled him with an accusing finger. "You should have been the one to tell me, Aang! I shouldn't have had to hear about it from Mai, of all people! I felt like a complete idiot!"
"What? Mai knows about Iroh?" Aang exploded incredulously. "How?"
Katara grimaced in frustrated confusion. "Iroh?" she echoed blankly, plunking her hands on her hips. "What does he have to do with this? I'm talking about Sokka! I know Toph is in love with my brother so you can stop playing dumb!"
Aang closed his eyes briefly in sheer mortification before quickly schooling his features into a blank mask and backpedaling furiously. "Right, Sokka…" he pacified her mildly. "She has feelings for Sokka. Iroh has nothing to do with this at all. I don't know what I was thinking mentioning him. Sokka is the issue here."
His sudden fidgety behavior had Katara narrowing her eyes in suspicion. "Wait a minute," she said, circling him like a prowling cat. "Why did you bring up Iroh when I mentioned Toph having a crush? It seems to me that Sokka would have been your immediate conclusion seeing as how you've known about it for the last five years!" She punctuated the last of that accusation by shoving her face directly into his. "What are you up to, Aang?"
The young Avatar cringed. "Can you please stop yelling at me?" he requested meekly.
"Spill your guts, airbender," Katara ordered without an ounce of sympathy.
"Listen to me," Aang responded patiently. "Toph did not want her feelings for Sokka to become common knowledge because she didn't want anyone to feel awkward, especially Sokka. That's why she never said anything before and that's why I never said anything because I was respecting her feelings about it. Besides, it doesn't matter now because she's completely over it."
Katara lurched upright, crossing her arms over her chest defiantly despite the sheepish blush creeping up her neck and staining her cheeks. "Well…well, you still should have told me," she maintained ineffectually. "We're in a committed relationship. You and I aren't supposed to keep secrets from each other." But she was grasping at straws and she knew it. What's more, Aang knew it.
"If you want to apologize, I won't rub it in," Aang replied with a gentle smile. "In fact, this will be the last time we'll ever have to mention it."
His willingness to let her off the hook so easily only made her feel infinitely worse. "I really hate you sometimes," Katara grumbled without heat.
Aang's smile widened. "No, you don't," he refuted confidently. "You love me. Who couldn't love this face?" He pouted for effect.
"Whatever," she dismissed with a roll of her eyes, though she was smiling too. "Maybe I do love you…" she hedged coyly, "…just a little bit."
He crooked a lone finger at her. "Then come back over here," Aang invited, "and provide me with a 'little' demonstration, will you?" A few minutes later she was back in his lap and the cave was echoing with the sounds of her girlish giggles.
"I still don't get it," she sighed between nibbling kisses. "Why did you mention Iroh a little while ago? What does any of this have to do with him anyway? Why would he even come up at all?"
"Just forget I said anything…it's not important," Aang insisted softly. However, when he attempted to seal his mouth to hers in hopes of helping her "forget," Katara suddenly reared back from him with a horrified grimace of dawned understanding. "Oh. My. Goodness," she uttered in shock. Her disbelieving stare ricocheted to Aang's face. "Toph likes Iroh now, doesn't she?"
Aang swallowed back a groan of consternation. "Katara, before you jump to wild conclusions—,"
"But I'm right!" she interrupted wildly. "I'm right, aren't I?" This time Aang did groan aloud. "Don't bother to deny it! You don't have to say a word," she accused him. "It's written all over your face! Toph has a thing for Iroh!" She balked as the full import of the realization settled upon her with jarring clarity and she grimaced anew. "Toph has a thing for Iroh! That's…that's just insane!"
In contrast to her freak out, Aang remained absolutely composed. In fact, his reaction was the last one Katara ever expected. "Why is it insane?" he asked calmly.
She gaped at him. "You can't be seriously asking me that."
"If Toph is happy then what's the big deal?" he challenged.
"Iroh is like a lot older than her, Aang," Katara stressed as if that point should have been readily evident to him.
"I'm a lot older than you," Aang countered with a shrug. "98 years to be exact."
"It's not the same, Aang," Katara retorted in the driest of tones. "You may technically be 118 years old, but physically you're a young man." She then lowered her tone to a deep, emphatic baritone. "Iroh is not a young man!"
"Again, what's the big deal?" Aang asked again. "So he's older than her. If we can't seriously consider that I'm older than you then what about the fact that you're older than me?"
"By two years! I'm not old enough to be your mother, Aang!" Katara cried fervently, "Or your grandmother!" She shuddered. "I don't know…it's just weird. Toph and Iroh? I…I need some time to process things."
"I can understand that," Aang related sympathetically. "I needed some time too, but I think it helped me to remember that love knows no age. The heart wants what it wants, right?"
"Wait a second," Katara gaped. "Love? I thought we were just talking about a crush here! Is Toph in love with him?" Aang shrugged while Katara proceeded to freak out further. "Aang, how can you just sit there? This is a big deal! Do you have any idea how huge this is? Zuko is going to flip out! We just got him calmed down after the whole Komo thing!"
"Katara, it's not for us to decide," Aang said. "It's not for Zuko to decide. It's between Toph and Iroh. That is if she decides to make her feelings known to him. The point is it's her business. It's about what she wants. Whether or not we approve of her feelings isn't the issue and it shouldn't be. What's important here is Toph's happiness and, well…if Iroh makes her happy we need to respect that."
As usually, his quiet and precise way of putting things in perspective managed to calm Katara down. Draping her arms loosely about Aang's shoulders, she leaned into him until her forehead rested against his. "Is that what you told Toph tonight?" she murmured thoughtfully, amazed anew by the depth of his wisdom and easy acceptance. "That you respect her decisions and you want her to be happy?"
"Pretty much," Aang replied.
Katara expelled an expansive sigh before finally nodding her agreement. "Then I suppose I can follow your example and make an effort to do the same."
"I knew you would say that," Aang commended softly right before rewarding her magnanimity with a gentle kiss.
"So Iroh…what else are you good at, besides kicking butt and making great tea?"
It was a rather lame come on. In fact, Toph could admit it was probably the lamest come on in the history of lame come ons. In essence, she sucked mightily at flirting. Being coy was not her thing. She was an "in your face" type of girl. If she couldn't come out and simply state what she wanted and how she wanted it in a situation, Toph usually didn't even bother. That was the very reason flirting with Iroh left her so flustered. She felt awkward and exposed and incredibly vulnerable.
Usually, under those circumstances, she would stage a retreat and erect an impenetrable emotional wall, but with Iroh she wanted to do neither. As scared as she felt, as insecure as she was she didn't want to shrug this off. She didn't want to pretend like her feelings for Iroh didn't matter. She didn't want to spend the remainder of her life wondering what if.
"You don't have to keep me company," Iroh reassured her, nodding to where her friends were dispersed all over the village. "This is the time for you to spend with people your own age."
As much as he enjoyed her company, sometimes Iroh had to wonder if he enjoyed it too much. Spending time with Toph had become a delightful pastime for him. Yet, he felt guilty for it because he didn't want to take her away from association with people her own age. He knew he should persuade her to spend time with her friends and so he did, even as he was hoping she would reject his encouragement and remain with him. Toph didn't disappoint him.
"And what if I'd rather spend my time with you?" she challenged.
Iroh erupted in a laugh at the very idea, pleased and surprised all at once. "Why would you? I'm a boring old man full of even more boring, older stories."
"I don't happen to find you boring or old," Toph told him. "And I like your stories…I always have." She smiled at him shyly, her cheeks tinting with pink. Iroh found himself unexpectedly charmed by the becoming sight of a blushing Toph Bei Fong.
"You're not going anywhere, are you?" Iroh surmised dryly.
"Not unless you want me to," she whispered.
When he caught himself grinning at her like a fool, Iroh quickly composed himself. Keeping his tone as neutral as he possibly could, he said, "In that case, would you care for more tea?"
Toph held out her cup to him. "I believe I would."
On the other side of the village, Zuko emerged from Sokka's ice hut with a broad yawn. As he idly scratched his bare chest and contemplated the miles of frozen tundra before him, he spied his uncle outside a neighboring hut, quietly sipping tea with Toph. Zuko contorted his body in a lazy stretch, about to dismiss the scene entirely in favor of waking his wife with a kiss when Toph suddenly laughed. Zuko froze mid-step and slowly pivoted back around with a scowl. It wasn't so much that she had laughed. He had heard that often enough not to be alarmed, but her humor was usually mocking or caustic. He couldn't remember ever hearing Toph laugh…flirtatiously. And yet, that was exactly what she was doing. She was laughing flirtatiously with his uncle. Zuko gagged.
"Morning," Mai greeted grumpily, coming to stand alongside him. It took her only a few seconds to realize that Zuko's attention was directed elsewhere. "What are we looking at?"
"I think I'm going to be sick," Zuko mumbled.
"Oh brother," Mai groaned, palming her forehead. "Not with the sympathetic pregnancy symptoms again, Zuko. Seriously, it was sweet in the beginning, but now…really just stop."
"Not that," he refuted stridently, framing her head and turning it in Toph and Iroh's direction. "That!"
"Your uncle and Toph are having breakfast together," she concluded dryly. "And? It's not like we haven't seen that a thousand times."
"I think she's flirting with him!" Zuko cried in a panic.
Mai regarded him with a blank stare before shaking off his hold and turning away completely. "Okay, I'm going back inside."
"Mai!" her husband whined as he went charging into the hut after her. "Didn't you hear what I just told you?"
"Yes, I heard you," Mai acknowledged as she stretched back out on the animal pelt bed and closed her eyes, "and I'm ignoring you."
"I'm not being unreasonable this time," he insisted.
"Zuko, you're always unreasonable," she replied. "Come back to bed. It's too early for this kind of nonsense."
"I know what I saw!" he maintained stubbornly.
"Whatever you say," Mai indulged with a yawn. "I am not going to do this with you again, Zuko. Your ridiculous paranoia over your mother's relationship with Komo was more than enough. Have you forgotten how you accused him of wanting to marry her just so he could have a shot at becoming the next Firelord?"
"It was a possibility," Zuko argued lamely.
"And what about the time you were convinced he was plotting to assassinate you?" Mai added for effect.
"You have to admit he doesn't like me very much!"
Mai cracked open an eye with a huff of exasperation. "Sometimes I don't like you very much," she countered dryly. "That doesn't mean I'm trying to kill you." When she caught sight of his frustrated and forlorn expression, however, Mai relented with a heavy sigh. She pushed herself upright and patted the empty space beside her. "Come here." He hesitated for only the briefest moment before stepping forward to fold down beside her with an affronted pout. "Listen to me," she began pragmatically, "you have to stop being so possessive when it comes to your mother and your uncle. Just because they spend time with other people and even love other people doesn't mean they're going to love you less. You can't be threatened every time they form a bond with someone besides you."
Zuko slumped, acknowledging the wisdom in her words even though he didn't want to. "I'm a mess, aren't I?"
"Yes," his wife confirmed succinctly. "But I guess I like you in spite of that."
Rather than making him smile, her dry teasing had him groaning and dropping his face into his hands. "I'm going to make a lousy father, aren't I?" he queried miserably. Because she knew he was being absolutely serious this time, Mai refrained from mocking him. Instead, she pressed an affectionate kiss to his bare shoulder before resting her chin there. Zuko turned slightly to regard her with a mournful stare. "How am I supposed to raise a kid when I don't even have my own parental issues together?" he lamented. "I need a parent right now. I can't be a parent!"
"Zuko, growing up doesn't mean that you stop needing your parents," Mai reasoned.
He favored her with a morose, sideways glance. "You don't seem to need yours," he commented softly.
An indescribable expression akin to sadness flickered across Mai's features before the emotion disappeared entirely. "It's not the same," she refuted. "I never had the relationship with my parents that you have with your mother and uncle. You can't miss what you never had in the first place."
"But you just said it yourself," Zuko reminded her, "I'm a mess, remember?"
"I was only teasing you."
"It's still true," he insisted glumly. "I am a mess and I know it. I want so much to be a good dad to our baby, but sometimes I wonder if it's truly in me. Can I really do it? Becoming a father is probably going to be one of the most important events to happen in my entire life and…what if I fail, Mai? It's not like I had the best role model!"
"Yes, you did," Mai reminded him, nodding towards the entrance of the hut. "He's outside this very second, sucking down tea like it's going to sprout legs and walk away." While Zuko was choking back his laughter over the visual her words created, she added, "Remember, I didn't have very good role models either. Who knows? We may both suck as parents."
"Wow, Mai," Zuko replied dryly, "somehow that makes me feel so much better."
"It should make you feel better," Mai said with a rare smile. "We can start clean and make our own rules, Zuko. There's no law that says we have to repeat our parents' mistakes or live in their shadows. This is about us now, our family and we can make it whatever we want."
"You're so beautiful when you're practical and reassuring," Zuko told her.
"Of course I am," she agreed. "That's exactly why you want to kiss me right now."
Zuko responded to her certain postulation with a flirty smile. "I still think Toph was coming on to my uncle," he reiterated as he leaned in.
"Oh, just zip it and kiss me, you dork!" His answering laughter was smothered by her lips a moment later. Soon, playful kisses turned serious and Zuko's hands went on a meandering trek across the sleek curves of Mai's body. He pressed her back into the fur pallets and began easing himself down beside her when she gasped into his mouth.
He barely had time to scramble out of the way before she was lurching upright, transfixed by the sudden, curious fluttering she felt right below her navel. Mai pressed a trembling hand to her rounded abdomen, her lips parting slightly, her features cleansed with absolute wonderment.
"Mai, what is it?" her husband demanded anxiously. Half smiling, half frowning, Mai wordlessly swept up his hand and brought his palm against the spot where their baby was active and kicking. Zuko's eyes widened in astonished amazement before he emitted a little yelp of joy.
"It's our baby," Mai confirmed in awe. "Our baby is moving, Zuko."
"I know," he whispered reverently, tracing his fingers along her stomach to keep track of the erratic thumps. He gratefully counted each miraculous beat. "I feel it. That's incredible. He's moving inside you, Mai." As the movements gradually tapered off into stillness, Zuko lifted his gaze and regarded his wife with shimmering eyes. "That's the first time," he uttered tremulously.
"Yes," Mai agreed softly, so overwhelmed she actually feared she might cry, "The first time."
"I can't believe it," he murmured. "I love you." He reached out to gather Mai close, seeking her lips in an ardent kiss. They fell back together into the furs, caressing, grasping, seeking to be closer still. "I love you both so much," Zuko gasped emotionally.
"We love you too."
Sokka opened his eyes that morning and found a lovely surprise waiting for him. Rather than being awakened to the sound of his father's rumbling snores as he had for the last three days since he began sharing Hakoda's hut, he instead found his fiancée staring down at him. Better still, a brief glance about the hut confirmed that they were alone. Sokka couldn't help but smile his pleasure. Even with her dark hair hopelessly tousled, her face still slightly puffy with sleep and a dour expression, Suki still remained the most breathtaking sight he had ever seen. He was not only amazed by how much he loved her, but by how his love seemed to grow and expand every single day.
"Are you really going to become my wife tomorrow afternoon?" he wondered wistfully.
Suki's reply to that question, however, was anything but romantic and sentimental. "That depends," she prefaced flatly. "Are you in love with Toph?"
He burst out laughing. The question was too hilarious, too ludicrous to do otherwise. Not for a single moment did Sokka entertain the idea that she was even remotely serious, until… He noticed she wasn't laughing too. Gaping at her, Sokka pushed up onto his elbows. "Tell me you're not seriously asking me that," he entreated, half joking, half somber. When she remained silent, however, all his laughter vanished entirely. "Suki, you cannot be serious!"
"You tell me what I'm supposed to think!" she cried defensively. "Every time anyone even mentions the possibility of Toph finding a boyfriend or, my goodness, going on a date you have some kind of meltdown! At first, I thought you were being quirky and overprotective, like you are with Katara but…lately, I don't know anymore!"
His angry retort to that was abruptly quashed, however, when a sudden idea occurred to him. Sokka's lips curved in a deliberate grin. "Are you playing a trick on me?" he wondered slyly. "Haha. Hilarious! Did Toph put you up to it?" He craned a look around the ice hut. "Is she hiding in here somewhere? Come on out, Toph! Your little plan has been foiled!"
"This isn't a joke, Sokka!" Suki snapped, surging to her feet. In disbelief, Sokka slowly pushed upright, watching as she began frenetically prowling the interior of the hut. "I couldn't sleep last night thinking about it," she ranted softly. "I kept telling myself I was being ridiculous, that it was wedding jitters and nothing more but…" She came to an abrupt halt and regarded him with glistening eyes. "I can't pretend you don't share something with Toph that you don't have with me," she whispered.
"Suki," Sokka breathed, rolling to his feet and tugging her into his arms. "Toph is my friend. She's my best friend, but that's all she is." He looked her straight in the eyes when he added, "That's all I want her to be."
But that's not all she wants to be, Suki thought morosely. "But what if…" she pressed stubbornly. "What if Toph felt that way about you? What if you found out she wanted to be with you? Would that change things between us?"
Sokka emitted a short bark of laughter. "Hah! Like Toph would ever feel that way about me," he snorted. "Eww! It would be like wanting to be in a relationship with yourself."
"What are you talking about?" Suki demanded.
"Toph…is…" Sokka began, searching for the most appropriate way to explain himself before finally settling with, "Well, Toph is me."
She glared at him in a beat of silence, her features twisted in an aggravated grimace. "What does that mean?"
"Exactly that. She's me," Sokka emphasized. "I get her and she gets me because we're basically the same person. The bond I have with her, that's what it is. She's like the other part of me. We just click and we always have."
"Is this somehow supposed to make me feel better?" Suki asked dryly. "Is it supposed to put me over the moon that you're basically saying that Toph is your soulmate or something?"
"I'm not saying that!" he cried. "You're putting words in my mouth!"
"I know what I heard, Sokka," she maintained, lower lip trembling.
"You're taking this all wrong," he insisted, sweeping up her hands to his lips and brushing a tender kiss across her knuckles. "Yes, Toph and I have a lot in common, but that's because sometimes it's like we share one brain," he said. "She's the girl version of me, the meaner and slightly less charming version, but still me. Why do you think you get along with her so well?"
Suki pondered that for a moment, slowly and carefully acknowledging to herself that she had liked Toph, practically from the start. "Because she reminded you of me, didn't she?" Sokka concluded, watching the answer chase its way across her features.
"I don't know if it's that," Suki hedged, but honestly she suspected it was. "Maybe I liked her because she didn't put up with your shenanigans."
The denial was weak, however. When Suki reflected on it, she could admit that their sense of humor, their ideals, even the way they related to each other sometimes without words was phenomenal and eerie. At times they operated like one person living in two separate bodies. It never occurred to Suki that the very qualities she found attractive in Sokka were also the same qualities that solidified her friendship with Toph. She groaned aloud at the realization.
"Exactly," Sokka whispered when he could see that she finally understood him. "I'm not in love with Toph. I'm in love with you," he stated implacably. "My friendship with Toph is a big part of who I am, but so are you. You're the most important part. I love you, Suki."
If the fervency of his words weren't enough to convince her then the absolute sincerity burning in his blue eyes was. Suki slumped against him with a heavy sigh. "I'm being an idiot, aren't I?"
"Yes," Sokka agreed feelingly. "Yes, you are!"
Suki flashed him a glare. "You weren't supposed to agree with me!"
"I calls 'em like I sees 'em," he said.
"Just admit you played your part in making me insecure," Suki replied tartly, poking him squarely in the chest.
"No way! You arrived at this craziness on your own!"
"Yes way," she insisted stridently. "I told you how ridiculous you acted every time I even mentioned fixing Toph up with someone! You acted like it was a personal affront to you, Sokka!"
"And I told you, Toph isn't one of your frilly, girly girls," Sokka retorted. "She's tough and independent and the last thing she wants is a boyfriend!"
"How do you know?" Suki challenged. "Have you ever asked her? Maybe she's lonely. You don't know!"
"Wait a minute! Stop!" Sokka grated irritably. "Aren't you supposed to be apologizing to me right now? You know, kissing me and begging for my forgiveness for being such an idiot? How did we end up in another fight?"
"Are you calling me an idiot?" Suki demanded in a silky tone.
Sokka held his ground, standing with her nose to nose. "Well, if the moccasin fits…" he retorted in clear challenge.
Suki yelped her indignant outrage and presented him with her back, folding her arms defensively across her chest. "You know…I think I may be having second thoughts about marrying you tomorrow," she threatened dramatically. "I don't happen to like your attitude!"
"Oh yeah?" Not to be outdone, Sokka turned his back to hers, lifting his chin to a haughty angle. "Well, I think I might be having second thoughts too!" he threw back.
The moment he said the words, however, Suki was whipping back around to face him. "Did you seriously mean that?" she cried capriciously. "You don't want to marry me?"
In a flash, Sokka had her cradled in his arms and was taking back every single word. "Of course, I didn't mean it," he said, stroking her heaving back. "I want to marry you so much it hurts! You're making me crazy, woman!"
"I know…I know," she mumbled into his chest again and again. "I just…I need you to be sure, Sokka."
"Sure about what?" Sokka prodded.
"That you want to marry me," Suki clarified uncertainly.
"Ugh, not this again," Sokka groaned. "Is this wedding jitters, Suki? Is that what this is? Gran Gran warned me you might go temporarily insane before the wedding, but I never expected anything like this."
Suki pinned him with a defiant stare. "I am not insane! This is me wanting to know the real reason why you have a problem with Toph being in a relationship," she insisted. "So stop putting your issues off on me and just answer the question, Sokka!"
"Because I don't want to lose her!" he bit out sharply, stunning them both with his vehemence. "Okay? Are you satisfied now? I don't want to lose my friend!" Until he actually voiced the fear aloud, Sokka hadn't realized just how much it was really bothering him. He shrugged away from Suki with a dejected sigh. "I barely see her as it is," he whispered. "We don't hang out nearly as much as we used to and even though we write and keep in touch…it's just not the same anymore… If she were to get into a relationship then it would definitely be over."
"You don't want to be second in her life?" Suki concluded softly.
He didn't verbally confirm the theory, but the answering look on his face was enough. "You think I'm a self-centered jerk, don't you?" Sokka queried in mild self-deprecation. "I am," he sighed in realization. "I am a self-centered jerk. But I can't help how I feel. Do you know that I actually got jealous of Aang when they started getting closer? How crazy is that? We've all been friends for years, but I absolutely hated the idea of him taking my place as her best friend. If she finds a guy, I know for sure that's going to happen."
"How do you know that?"
Sokka turned around to face her, his expression a mixture of sadness, confusion and wistfulness. "Because you've taken her place as mine," he answered quietly.
His candid reply softened her, eased her emotionally like nothing else had. She closed the distance between them in small, inching steps. "Really?" she ventured sweetly.
"Really," he confirmed, reaching up to frame her face in his hands. What emotion he hadn't transmitted through that single word, Sokka put completely into his kiss. Suki sighed into his mouth, her body going pliant against his as they wrapped their arms around each other. Their clothing rustled as they shifted closer, kissed deeper. They might have remained that way for an eternity had Sokka's grandmother not come barging in.
"I thought I'd find you here," Kana declared, snagging hold of Suki's wrist and dragging her away from Sokka mid-kiss. She resolutely ignored the young lovers' protests as she pulled Suki towards the exit. ""You only have to wait one more day!" she insisted. "Just one! I can't understand you young people and your impatience!"
"Gran, you can let her go," Sokka laughed. "Suki and I have…you know…done that before…a lot."
While Suki blushed a million shades of red over his blunt admission, Kana merely leveled her grandson with a sour glare, hardly shocked. "I don't care how many times you've done it," she replied brusquely. "You're waiting until your wedding night before doing it again and that's that!" She leveled a bony finger at Sokka, her blue eyes narrowed in warning. "You come near her again and I'm taking a stick to you. Are we clear?"
Sokka held his hands up in surrender though he couldn't quite wipe the happy grin off his face. "Yeah Gran, we're clear."
"Iroh, what do you look like?"
Toph's impulsive question not only surprised Iroh, but herself as well. Only once had she asked that question before, when she was fifteen, to Aang, while they had been engaging in a particularly grueling metalbending session. She'd been essentially kicking his butt and ragging on him for not being a better student. He had been frustrated and on the verge of giving up, which had only sent Toph's temper soaring. They had been screaming at each other because she was riding him and he wanted her to leave him alone when she'd suddenly shouted, "I wish I knew what you looked like just to see if the whiny pants I imagine is even remotely close to the actual thing!"
As sharp as her insult had been, however, Aang had not taken offense. Instead, he'd straightened and asked her, "Do you really want to know?"
It had only been at that particular moment that Toph realized she really did. Before that instance, she had never given any serious regard to physical appearance, not her friends and certainly not her own. The times when it did occur to her, she quickly dismissed it before she could dwell on it further. In retrospect, it seemed a silly thing to contemplate. She had supposed her friends could describe things to her in terms of color and texture, but considering that, beyond being able to discern shape and mass, Toph had no reference point for such things, she really hadn't seen the point in asking. However, that afternoon, when Aang asked her, she didn't dismiss it.
"I know you're bald and covered in tattoos," she'd said, "and you're taller than me and painfully skinny, but… What do you look like, Aang?"
Surprised but pleased by her curiosity, Aang had gently taken her hands and guided them to his face, allowing her to explore the bumps and contours of his features. She'd poked him in the eye twice and once her finger went clear up his nostril, but he had remained patient with her. Finally, after she had skimmed the ridges and lines of his forehead, cheeks, nose and mouth, Toph let her hands fall away with a contented sigh.
"You seem pretty well put together," she'd told him.
"Thanks," he'd replied somewhat sheepishly. Afterwards, they had resumed their lesson, both significantly calmer and mellowed, so much so that Toph had amended her earlier statement to Aang and told him that she didn't think he was such a "whiny pants" after all.
She smiled in recollection of the memory now, realizing with an erratically thumping heart how much more significant familiarizing herself with Iroh's features would be. With Aang, she had been a girl, curious about a long time friend. With Iroh, she was a woman, curious about a man. It made a huge difference.
Meanwhile, as Toph was working herself up into a quiet excitement, Iroh was completely flustered. One moment she had been regaling him with the story of how she'd learned metalbending and lamenting the fact that her earthbending student, the Avatar, still had much to learn, and then the next she was asking him what he looked like. Iroh had never imagined she cared. Toph had never been overly preoccupied with that sort of thing and it was something Iroh had admired about her. She seemed confident with whom she was and the people around her even without the ability to see.
That was the reason Iroh was left so taken aback by her request, not because he believed insecurity had prompted it, but because he knew her motivation had been genuine curiosity. Iroh balked inwardly. Why would she be curious? Why would she care? She was an extraordinary, articulate, gorgeous young woman! What possible interest could she have in an aging teashop owner and former Fire Nation general? Yet, she seemed legitimately interested and Iroh couldn't pretend he wasn't flattered.
"You want to know what I look like?" he echoed carefully, just to be certain.
"Yes," Toph confirmed with a nod before scooting closer to him. "Don't bother describing yourself. I've got a better way." Before Iroh could discern her intentions she was pressing her hands on both sides of his face and skimming her fingertips along the ridge of his cheekbones. Iroh fidgeted a bit at her unanticipated touch, but otherwise remained completely still as she familiarized herself with his face. She smiled broadly as she traced over the line of his brows. "They're very bushy," she observed lightly.
"So I've been told," Iroh laughed.
"Do that again," Toph urged as her fingers skated blindly over his eyes. She was amazed to find his lashes were thick and lush and incredibly curly.
"Do what?" Iroh wondered, blinking.
"Laugh," she bid him softly. "I love to hear you laugh. It's like it comes from the deepest part of you. It's infectious. When you laugh, I want to laugh too."
"I can't laugh on cue, Toph," he told her, his words a rasping whisper because suddenly having her so close to him was making him feel rather lightheaded.
Her fingertips traveled along the bridge of his nose, clear to the tip. "I think I like your nose," she remarked after a thoughtful moment.
"We have something in common," he chuckled. "I like it too."
His rumbling laughter made her giggle. "Thank you."
"I didn't do it on purpose," he murmured. "You have that effect on me."
"I do?" she whispered. By this time, her face was so close to his that her breath stirred provocatively against his skin when she spoke. Iroh swallowed audibly. Hearing the sound, Toph murmured his name. "Is everything okay?" she asked him.
He had to clear his throat several times before he could speak. "Did you…did you get a good enough look?" he asked her gruffly.
"Just one more place," Toph told him, dragging her fingers down to find his mouth. She carefully traced his upper lip, surprised by how soft and supple she found it, before directing her attention to the fuller lower one. "I like your mouth too," she commented neutrally, crinkling her nose, "but you have too many whiskers."
"You think so?" Iroh queried, swallowing back a laugh. "I haven't been clean shaven since I was a young man." For some reason he felt the need to add, "That was a long time ago."
Unfortunately, Iroh didn't know if he was making the pronouncement for her benefit or for his own. She had only been curious about what he looked like. He was the one who was getting all worked up with feelings for a girl he had watched grow up into womanhood. The realization was disconcerting and filled him with a sudden determination to put distance between them.
Abruptly, he scooted from beneath her touch and tried not to be too affected by her disappointed pout over his actions. "I just wanted to deter you from attempting to explore my teeth," he teased her wryly. "I assure you, they are all there."
Toph erupted with a hearty laugh. "I wasn't going to go that far," she assured him between chuckles, "but…fair is fair. It's your turn now."
"Now, you're going to tell me what I look like," Toph clarified for him. When he didn't respond to that immediately she added a little self-consciously, "I've never asked anyone to do that for me before. You're the first."
"You've never asked your friends?" Iroh wondered in surprise.
"I've never really wanted to know before," she answered. "I mean, I know I'm pretty, whatever that means, but nothing really beyond the fact that my hair is black and my eyes are a faded green."
"Your hair isn't black," Iroh disputed quietly. "That's much too plain a description."
"The few times I've seen you unbound your hair, I thought it looked magnificent," Iroh answered honestly.
"It's rich and dark and deep, like a moonless night…" but then, because he realized such a description was useless to her having never seen either, he amended, "…or…or like the darkness that surrounds you. That is what your hair reminds me of, Toph."
"That's…not such a good thing," Toph murmured in disappointment. "I don't like the darkness that surrounds me."
"Darkness can be beautiful, Toph," Iroh insisted gently. "You have the power to create your own world. Shapes, colors, designs…all can be the product of your own imagination. You can make the world look however you want it to be…you can have a sky without clouds and stars or, if you desire, filled with giant hippo-cows," he added, provoking a soft laugh from Toph. "The darkness is what you make it and it can only be a bad thing if you let it be."
"I think that's the most profound thing anyone has ever said to me," Toph breathed in amazement.
"Somehow I doubt it," Iroh dismissed heartily. "You're very good friends with the Avatar. I'm sure he's dropped many insightful kernels of wisdom before."
"Yeah, but when he does it, I usually hear 'blah, blah, blah, blah,'" Toph replied dryly. Again, her sardonic humor provoked a deep, hearty laugh from Iroh and Toph laughed right along with him. "So does that mean you like the way I look?" she asked meekly when their mirth had settled.
"I think…" Iroh began with thick emotion, "…that you are breathtaking."
It wasn't so much that he said the words that moved Toph, it was the very fact that he actually sounded breathless when he said them, he actually sounded like she was taking his breath away. Toph had never considered herself to be an overly emotional girl, and she was not, but, right then, she felt dangerously close to tears. She honestly couldn't decide if she wanted to cry or kiss him, maybe even both. Her pride wouldn't allow her to do the former, however, and she lacked the courage to attempt the latter so she settled with some middle ground.
"Iroh?" she asked somewhat timidly. "I was wondering if…well, if you didn't have other plans… Would you like to escort me to Sokka and Suki's wedding tomorrow afternoon?" she finished in a rush of breath.
His first instinct was to respond with a resounding yes. Here was a beautiful, charismatic young woman requesting his presence as an escort, any young man in his position would be falling all over themselves for such an opportunity. And that was the issue. Any young man in his position would have been glad for the opportunity. But he was not a young man. He wasn't even a middle-aged man. He was an old man, much too old for someone as youthful and vibrant as Toph Bei Fong. He would most assuredly fall in love with her while she, most assuredly, was only caught up in the transient snare of infatuation.
"Toph," he began carefully, gently, "I am so very flattered that you would consider me as a suitable escort for you, but I must respectfully and regretfully decline."
"Decline?" Toph echoed blankly.
"You are a very sweet girl," he emphasized, stressing the word "girl" almost to a ridiculous degree, "but I don't think it would be a good idea at all."
Toph reared back from him, careful to keep her features free of the crushing anguish and disappointment she felt. "Yes," she agreed hoarsely. "You're probably right."
Aang crashed head first into the snow drift, creating a powdery shower as he made impact and provoking gales of laughter from his girlfriend as she sailed up behind him on her penguin. She hopped off her "ride" and both "vehicles" perched upright and ambled off, leaving Katara to survey a fallen Aang with a triumphant giggle. "That's just what you deserve," she declared as he rolled upright and bended way the remnants of snow and ice from his sodden form. "I knew it! I knew you were using airbending to go faster!"
"We never established a rule that said I couldn't," he reminded her wryly. "I won the race, Katara. Just accept it."
Katara responded with a disdainful sniff. "No. You're a cheater," she refuted. "And cheaters never prosper."
"Hmm…never, you say?" he challenged, deliberately stalking her around the snowy clearing with a devilish grin. "Are you sure about that?"
She had known him long enough to discern from his expression that he was up to no good. "Stay back," Katara warned him between fitful giggles. "I mean it, Aang! Don't make me waterbend at you!"
"Go ahead," he invited with a lazy smile. "We can make a game out of it."
"You are so bad," she sang out to him before turning abruptly to make a mad dash for a nearby cave. She didn't gain more than a few feet before he overtook her and was tackling her into a thick bed of snow. In a laughing huff, she flipped onto her back, her smile softening with affection and budding desire as he settled his body over hers. "You are out of control," she murmured softly. "You know that?"
They traded a few nuzzling kisses that might have escalated into more if Katara hadn't shivered beneath him. "We should probably get you inside before you freeze," Aang considered in soft reluctance.
However, when he tried to shift away from her, Katara snagged hold of his arm and pulled him back. "Don't worry about it," she said, cupping his nape to bring him down for her eager kiss. "You'll warm me up in a minute." The snow surrounded their bodies gradually melted away, a combination of rising body heat and Aang's subtle firebending. Beneath them the ground was marshy and slightly chilled, not that either of them noticed or cared. As the kiss began to grow and deepen and their bodies strained in a desperate need to be closer, Aang pulled back abruptly with a regretful sigh.
"You don't have to stop, Aang," Katara whispered, attempting to coax him back into her arms.
He sat up completely at her invitation, his expression a combination of longing and resolved regret. "Yes, I do," he determined in a solemn tone. Long ago, he'd learned the lesson that even kisses could quickly take them down a road neither of them was ready to travel. Since then, Aang had learned to check himself before they reached that point. His rigid self-control about such matters was something Katara found both admirable and wholly frustrating. That was the very reason Aang reminded her gently, "You know what will happen if I don't."
"I know what I want to happen," Katara countered, leaning up behind him to press a kiss to the base of his neck. "If you're holding back for my benefit," she murmured against his ear, "don't bother."
He shivered at her hanging invitation. It took all the willpower he had, but he managed to nudge her away and duck out from beneath further advances. They heaved a mutual groan over his evasion tactics but for very different reasons. "That's not the reason I stopped and you know it."
"I know," Katara sighed, finally backing off. "You want us to be married first."
"Exactly," Aang said. "And you want that too."
Katara grumbled a little but didn't bother denying that particular truth. "Well, then it would probably help if you…I don't know…asked me to marry you then," she pointed out in slight exasperation.
"Funny you should mention that…" he replied with a furtive smile, reaching surreptitiously into his pocket. "I have something I want to give you."
"I thought we already established that you're not giving me that until our wedding night," she replied glumly.
"Oh, you're hilarious," Aang returned dryly. "Maybe this will make you feel better about it…"
Her mild frustration with him turned to uncontainable joy when she turned to find a very simple yet very beautiful betrothal necklace dangling from his fingertips. Aang's mouth turned in a slow smile as he watched her face register shock, disbelief and finally delight. Katara traded speechless glances between him and the necklace. "I think I've waited long enough to ask you, don't you think?" he whispered sweetly.
"Oh…oh wow…" Her trembling fingers hovered mid-air, as if she were torn between snatching it from his hand and letting it remain where it was.
"So…um…you can touch it if you want," he invited her laughingly.
"It's so beautiful," she breathed, scooping the piece from his fingers with reverent care. It was much like her mother's necklace; only the face seemed to be made of gold rather than silver. She traced the swirling symbols scrawled across the pendant's gleaming veneer with loving precision. "I don't recognize the design," she commented with a pensive frown. "What nation is this?"
"It's our nation," Aang responded quietly, pointing to the design as he explained. "It's a combination of the air and water symbols. It's supposed to represent my new beginning…our beginning together, our family and our future."
"Oh, Aang! I love you," Katara murmured ardently, "so much." She stared at him in amazement, her vision blurring with overjoyed tears. "When did you have time to even make this? We're together practically all the time."
"Toph's been helping me during our metalbending sessions," Aang said.
"So she knew what you were planning?" Katara choked emotionally. He nodded. "You guys and your secrets," she grumbled, her words garbled with unshed tears. "I don't know whether to throttle you or cry."
"I'd prefer the tears, if you don't mind," Aang opted, provoking a teary giggle from her. "So does that mean you're saying yes?" he ventured meekly. Katara answered by lifting her hands to her neck and deliberately unfastening her mother's necklace. "No, Katara," Aang protested softly. "I don't expect that. I never expected that."
Katara stared down at the necklace in her hand, contemplating all the many and enormous things it meant to her, all the memories she had associated with it before she pocketed the cherished heirloom with a resolved sigh. "My mother's necklace is something very precious to me," she whispered, "but it belongs in the past. You are my future, Aang. I don't want to look behind anymore." She held the betrothal necklace out to him. "Will you put it on me, please?"
"With pleasure," he whispered, fastening the necklace about her throat with shaking fingers.
"Just in case it wasn't clear," she murmured, angling a tender look at him over her shoulder, "Yes, I'll marry you."
He couldn't help it. He kissed her again, fervidly enough to drive her back into the snow. Katara wrapped her arms around his neck, returning his passionate kiss measure for measure. She arched her body into his, tucking herself against him as closely as she possibly could. When things became too intense and he tried to pull away, she held him fast and begged in a whimper, "Aang, wait. Don't go…not yet." Her request was so sweet, so seductive that he didn't. He couldn't. For the first time ever, Aang didn't think about where their kisses could possibly lead. He merely gave into the fierce desire strumming through his veins.
"Aang, I'm going to murder you!"
Sometime later, Toph's enraged bellowing managed to surface the two lovers from their hot, but not so private, world of deep kisses and seeking caresses. Aang ripped away from Katara with a discomfited moan and began frantically groping about in the snow for his wrap to cover her bare torso. Katara, on the other hand, was quite unembarrassed and a little bit surly over Toph's unapologetic interruption. "Good grief, Toph!" she cried as Aang did his best to shield her partial nudity, discounting the fact he was half-naked as well. "I'm sure Sokka would be okay with it if you took a day off!"
"Chill out, Sweetness," Toph grated. "I don't have cockblocking in mind today. My business is with the bald one!"
"Toph, could you…like…give us a moment?" Aang grunted self-consciously, blocking Katara from Toph's view with his body.
"Aang, I'm blind, remember!" Toph cried, waving a hand before her face in sheer exasperation. "Just because I know you're naked doesn't mean I can see you're naked! Besides, you know my vision is fuzzy out here in this frozen wasteland! No offense to your home, Katara."
"None taken," Katara mumbled sardonically.
"Just…let us get dressed," Aang insisted wearily, "and then you can rip me to pieces."
"You have two minutes," Toph declared, stomping off.
When she was gone, Aang flopped back against the ground with a horrified groan. He threw his forearm across his eyes in dramatic fashion while Katara brushed a comforting hand across his forehead. "It's not like anything happened," she considered sheepishly.
Aang angled a woeful look at her from behind his arm. "But it could have," he replied. She shifted closer to him and he groaned anew when he caught tantalizing glimpses of bare flesh beneath his wrap. "Can you please get dressed now?" he pleaded. "I can only take so much."
Smiling, Katara dropped a fleeting kiss to his mouth. "I love you."
"I love you too," he sighed.
Aang watched Katara gather up the strewn items of her clothing and disappear into a nearby cave, all the while clamping down on the wild desire to call her back to finish what they'd started. Toph and her two minutes could go hang! Finally, when Aang was sure that he had a handle on his raging hormones and he could face Toph without screaming his head off at her, he put on his wrap, refastened his belt and trudged off in search of her. After a few minutes calling her name, he found her in the center of a flock of curious penguins. She irritably shooed them away, her features drawn in a disgruntled frown.
"So what did I do?" he wondered dryly.
The second she heard his voice Toph narrowed her eyes in displeasure. "What did you do? Take a chance, you said," she recounted in a mocking tone. "Don't be scared, you said! Go for it, Toph, you said! Well, I did and you know what? I got kicked in the teeth for my trouble!" she concluded in a vibrating shout. "I've never been so humiliated in my entire life!"
"Wait. You went to Iroh? He told you no?" Aang surmised, genuinely surprised.
"Of course, he told me no!" she screeched. "He sees me as nothing more than a child! Thanks to you, I just made an absolute fool out of myself, Aang!"
She stood before him, her slender body rigid, fists balled tightly at her sides, eyes glistening with tears and looking very much as though she were spoiling for a fight. She needed someone to blame and he was an easy target because he had been the one to encourage her in the first place. Aang had little doubt that she wanted to hit him or, at least, hit something, anything. She wanted to scream, rant and rave, anything to obliterate the crushing agony she felt at that moment. Aang could sympathize.
"If you need to hit me," he said softly, "I'll understand, Toph."
For a moment it seemed she would do just that and Aang steeled himself for the mighty blow he knew was coming. But Toph surprised them both when, instead of belting him, she suddenly flung herself into his unsuspecting arms and began bawling her heart out into his chest.
As Aang stooped to duck inside Iroh's tent, he intercepted Zuko as the older man exited. The young Firelord stopped short with an exasperated frown. "Where have you been?" he demanded.
"Around," Aang replied a little defensively. "Why?"
"No, you haven't," Zuko refuted. "Sokka and I spent all morning looking for you, Toph and Katara. I saw Toph a little later, but no you. No Katara."
"Why? What's up?"
"We're going to hang out tonight at Sokka's place, and he wanted to make sure you guys knew about it," Zuko said. "Come by after sundown."
"Sure, we'll be there," Aang agreed. But as he began to skirt around Zuko and slip beyond Iroh's tent flap, Zuko caught hold of his friend's arm. Now, it was Aang's turn to be mildly exasperated. "What, Zuko?"
"So where were you?" Zuko demanded again in a low whisper. When Aang hesitated to answer that and even blushed slightly in reaction, Zuko emitted a disgusted groan and dragged him over to a more secluded location. When he was satisfied with the amount of privacy they had, Zuko hissed, "Tell the truth! You were with Katara all morning, weren't you?"
It was disconcerting for Aang to learn that, even at the savvy age of eighteen and with years of world travel and life experience, he still had a penchant for blushing like mad. Growling to himself, Aang took his frustration over that fact out on Zuko. "So?" he snapped. "What if I was? Why is it a big deal?"
"Look, I'm not trying to tell you what to do," Zuko prefaced mildly. "But you know how Sokka can be and you know how protective he is of his sister…"
"And," Zuko emphasized, "I had to convince him that you guys were off somewhere with Toph hanging out to keep him from hunting you down. I'm just saying, next time try to be more discreet about it."
"I get that…you know…putting it off for long periods of time can…um…you know…build up the pressure…"
Aang gagged as he caught on to Zuko's line of reasoning. "Ew! Stop talking," he cried. "Katara and I weren't doing that, Zuko! We aren't doing anything! You covered for nothing!"
"Right," Zuko patronized. "Hey, I don't need or want details. Aang, I get you're an honorable guy. You're not going to kiss and tell. That's a good thing. I'm just saying be careful next time. I'd hate to have to step between my two best buds to prevent senseless bloodshed."
"Thanks for caring, Zuko," Aang replied, half seriously, half sarcastically. He started to walk back towards Iroh's tent when Zuko called out from behind, "You know…Uncle brews a special tea so that you don't…you know…get the girl…" He made a ballooning gesture over his abdomen to finish out the remainder of that statement. "It's definitely more effective than just pulling out."
"Oh man, no!" Aang cried, clamping his hands over his ears and then screwing his eyes shut because he could still see Zuko making a fool out of himself. "That's too much information, okay!" He quickly scurried inside Iroh's tent before his friend could traumatize him further in an effort to "help."
"Actually, I'm all out of that tea," Iroh clarified mildly when Aang burst inside. "Your friend Sokka cleaned me out. But I do have a nice one that serves as an aphrodisiac."
Aang resisted the urge to palm his face. "I'm not here about tea, General Iroh," he clarified soberly. "We need to talk about Toph."
"Of all the places you two could go on your honeymoon, you choose Kyoshi Island?" Mai balked. "How boring and unoriginal can you be?"
"That's a laugh coming from you, Mai," Suki snorted.
"What are you saying?" the older woman demanded dourly. "Are you implying I'm boring and unoriginal?"
Suki and Katara traded a laughing glance before they both denied simultaneously, "Nah, of course not. That's not you at all."
Mai favored them with a dry look of warning. "Careful ladies, I carry concealed weapons."
"Ah, ah, ah," Sokka drawled as he came to step between them. "Let's all remember, we make love now, not war…er, except for Aang and Katara. They should stick with the war."
"Oh, grow up, Sokka!" his sister snapped with a roll of her eyes.
Pointedly ignoring her, Sokka instead addressed Mai's earlier statement. "Our decision to honeymoon in Kyoshi isn't boring or unoriginal at all. It's sentimental," he explained with a soft smile directed a Suki. "It's where we first met. It's where we shared our first kiss."
"You guys kissed on Kyoshi?" Katara bleated. "But I thought you two hated each other. And then later there wasn't any time for romance because Zuko was trying to kill us."
"Technically, I was trying to capture the Avatar," Zuko interjected. "Killing is much too strong a description."
"You almost burned down the village," Sokka reminded him.
"I was being thorough," Zuko explained earnestly. "There wasn't any true malice in my actions."
"Thanks, Zuko. It so helps to know that," Suki deadpanned. "Anyway, it wasn't a real kiss. Just a peck on the cheek. But I never forgot about him after that."
The gang erupted in a refrain of gooey "awws" as she and Sokka leaned in to each other for a sweet, lingering kiss. Only Toph seemed immune to the display. She hung back from the rest of the group in the far corner of the ice hut, sullen and withdrawn. Every so often, Aang or Katara would throw a concerned glance in her direction, only to be thoroughly ignored. Earlier, after her emotional meltdown, they had tried to coax her into talking out her feelings, but she had rebuffed them at every turn. Finally, she had taken to simply ignoring them. Both Aang and Katara were so worried about her that it was hard to concentrate on having a good time with their friends.
"Katara?" Zuko said, frowning in concentration at his friend and diverting her attention from favoring Toph with yet another sympathetic glance. "What happened to your mom's necklace?"
At his question, Katara's fingers travelled reflexively to her throat. "Nothing happened to it."
"Then where is it?" Zuko wondered.
She and Aang traded a furtive look. "I'm wearing it."
"No, you're not," he argued. "That is not your mom's necklace."
"How would you know?" she challenged.
"You've only told everyone the story behind it like six hundred times," Mai pointed out dryly. "We could draw that necklace in our sleep."
"Did you lose it or something?" Sokka asked with immediate concern.
They all began clustering around her, firing questions, while she and Aang fidgeted uncomfortably. Earlier that afternoon they had discussed keeping their engagement a secret for the time being, at least until after Suki and Sokka's wedding and after all the emotional stuff with Toph blew over. Neither of them had wanted to add to Toph's already miserable state. Katara had never considered that her friends would notice her new necklace and make a big deal out of it. But they did.
"What is this?" Sokka demanded, fingering the pendant with a befuddled frown. "This isn't Mom's necklace at all! Where did you get this?"
"What symbol is that?" Mai wondered. "I don't recognize it."
"Is that even a nation?" Zuko wanted to know.
"Oh wow, you guys…" Suki breathed, a smile stretching wide across her face. "I know what this is." She lifted her eyes to Katara's face as both she and Aang began to blush furiously. "Aang asked you to marry him, didn't he?"
"What?" Sokka, Zuko and Mai chorused in unison.
"Yeah, I did," Aang confirmed reluctantly, a covert, worried gaze on Toph the entire time. "I asked Katara to marry me this morning. We're engaged."
"So that's where you two were," Sokka drawled in relief. "For a second, I thought…eh, never mind what I thought…congratulations, buddy!"
Everyone crowded around them to offer their own well wishes while Toph, fed up with all the relationship bliss, pulled herself upright and with one last, embittered scowl, trudged out into the frigid night air. For a moment, she stood still in the freezing snow, fighting mightily to hold back the tears gathering in her eyes. She sensed Iroh's presence long before he uttered a word to her.
"You should seriously consider wearing shoes while you're here," he advised her. "Your poor toes are probably taking a beating."
"If I wear shoes then how am I supposed to see?" Toph demanded tartly.
"Why don't you let me guide you?" Iroh volunteered, stepping forward to press a pair of newly stitched moccasins into her hands.
Minutes later, they were strolling away from the village with only the pale glow of the moon to light their path. Toph said nothing, which Iroh didn't find at all surprising. Even though her hand rested docilely against his forearm and she followed alongside him with little protest, it was impossible to ignore the fierce rigidity in her body. She was blazingly angry and he knew it.
"Would it help if I explained my point of view?" Iroh sighed after a moment.
"I don't care to hear it," Toph snapped back. "It wasn't easy opening myself up to you today and you basically spit on my efforts!"
"That's not true," Iroh denied.
"It's not a lie either," Toph retorted.
"You're young," Iroh considered. "Of course, you're going to see this situation through more idealistic eyes."
His assertion, meant to be mild and reflective, sounded condescending to Toph. She wrenched away from him in an angry whirl, impervious to the fact she could see not a single thing when she did. "How dare you?" she cried indignantly. "I'm not a child so don't you dare treat me like one! I have been on my own since I was 12 years old! I have experienced things that you cannot imagine! I know my own mind and I know what I want, Iroh!"
"And you think you want me?" he surmised quietly.
"I know I want you!" she cried in exasperation. "But you can't hear me. You look at me and all you see is that little, blind girl you offered tea to that one time! You don't see me."
"I wish I didn't see you," he countered forcefully. "I wish I could see you as only a child, but I don't. When I look at you, I see a woman…a beautiful, strong, capable woman and she intrigues me."
His reply brought Toph's temper down to a low simmer. "Then what's the problem?"
"Don't be naive, Toph!" he replied vehemently. "We are not some typical couple in the bloom of youth! It's not as if I can approach your father and ask his permission to court you! I'm old enough to be your father, your grandfather! My nephew is one of your dearest and closest friends! He will not understand this! Very few people will."
"Aang understands," Toph argued softly. "Katara understands. They both want me to be happy."
"I don't know if I'm the one to make that happen."
"I do," she insisted. "I've admired you since I was a little girl, Iroh. I still admire you, but I'm not a little girl anymore and I don't see you through a little girl's eyes. I see the man who teased me and made me smile when I thought my life sucked enormously. I see the man who I could talk to about anything, including my issues with my parents and never once made me feel like a spoiled brat about it. I see the man who made me feel truly beautiful for the first time in my whole life. You even made the constant darkness that surrounds me seem beautiful, Iroh! It hardly matters that I'm blind because…when I'm with you, I see the man I love," she concluded in a trembling whisper.
It had taken every bit of emotional reserves Toph had to make the admission aloud. She was actually shaking all over in the aftermath. She felt exposed, figuratively naked before him and the sensation was as exhilarating as it was alarming. Iroh had the complete power to make or break her in that moment. She had never given anyone in her entire life that kind of leverage over herself. Toph swallowed hard, mentally preparing herself to be dashed to pieces.
But instead, Iroh merely whispered, "You're in love with me?"
"I…I think so," Toph stammered meaningfully. "It certainly feels like it."
A few seconds later, she felt him take hold of her hands and pull her into the circle of his arms. Toph yielded against him, surprised by how comfortable and right it felt to be in his embrace. "This is going to be a disaster," he told her.
"You think?" she half laughed, half sobbed.
"People won't accept us," he warned.
"I don't care."
"They'll stare at us."
Toph shrugged. "I can't see them."
"They'll talk about us."
"I like being the center of attention."
"You're going to grow tired of being with an old man eventually."
"What old man?"
"Toph, don't be glib," he prefaced with a sigh. "This won't be easy."
"What in life worth having is easy, Iroh?" she countered softly. "I'm not afraid. Are you?"
He answered that in the audacious manner possible, considering their less than ideal circumstances, when he settled his lips to hers in a tender kiss. At first, it was soft and sweet, a mere exchange of breath, the perfect beginning for a first kiss. And then it deepened and shifted and changed and grew into something bigger, bolder…a fitting metaphor for the relationship unfolding between them. When it was over, Toph rested her cheek against the solid wall of his chest, her lips curved in a smile of pure wonder and contentment.
"So that's what it feels like to be kissed…" she sighed in amazement.
Iroh tipped a surprised glance down at her. "You never have been before?"
"I don't think I've ever wanted to be," she answered candidly, smiling up at him. "Not until you."
Suki made a radiant Water Tribe bride even decked out in traditional Kyoshi Island finery.
Her wedding gown had been tailored in the style of one of Avatar Kyoshi's best and most beautiful robes. The outer robe, which was a gleaming, pristine white, was embroidered with thick, shining threads of red, green and gold with lapels of green and a stiff collar of gold. The sleeves were wide and elegantly belled, the hems of which were the deep, emerald green symbolizing her heritage as an Earth Kingdom citizen. Her skirt was wide and flowing and was also a rich verdant color, trimmed with loops of golden thread. A simple sash of green silk tied the ensemble together.
On her head she wore a gleaming headpiece, reminiscent of the fans she and her fellow warriors carried into battle. Her thick brown hair was left unadorned. She approached her groom, her features devoid of all makeup, her beauty natural and ethereal in the afternoon sunlight, her luminous blue eyes sparkling with love for her husband to be.
A crowd of ships and royal Zeppelins filled the harbor and the shore of the Southern Water Tribe village. But not even their towering grandeur could be seen over the wondrous crowd of people that had come to observe Sokka and Suki's union. The smiling faces passed behind of blur of tears for Suki, some familiar and some she did not know at all, but the expressions were all the same; joy was the binding agent. From the corner of her eye, as she passed, she caught glimpses of her fellow Kyoshi warriors, waving wildly and calling her name and then there was Oyagi, smiling on proudly and even Foamy, who was already beginning to lose control at the sight of the Avatar, who was officiating the ceremony.
Suki only recognized them on the very edge of her consciousness, however. Her eyes, her heart, her senses were completely and unbelievably in tune with the man standing before her, adorned in white and crowned with a fearsome looking polar bear headpiece, his eyes warm and soft with love for her. To Suki he had never looked more beautiful. Her eyes burned with tears of happiness. When she finally came to stand alongside Sokka before Aang, a thunderous applause went up from among the wedding guests, initiated, predictably, by their closest friends who were seated in the foremost row.
As both Suki and Sokka assumed a kneeling position before Aang, the young Avatar swept his eyes over the crush of people before him, feeling humbled and overwhelmed. His eyes first came to rest on Katara, beautiful in her formal Water Tribe robes, her face alight with happiness for Sokka and love for him. He smiled at her fondly before moving on to Zuko and Mai, who sat beside her.
Husband and wife were cuddled together in an uncharacteristic show of public affection, Zuko's hand resting lightly on the swell of Mai's stomach. That would be Suki and Sokka one day, Aang registered with a deep sense of poignancy. That would be him and Katara one day. And Toph…Aang shifted his eyes to her with a heavy heart, but when he saw her sitting beside Iroh, her expression filled with unabashed elation that heaviness became hope. Perhaps, this day would come for her as well…
There were other faces he registered, people near and dear to them all, their family and extended family from all parts of the world…Hakoda and Bato, Gran-Gran and Master Pakku, Master Piandao, his old, crazy friend Bumi, Ursa and Komo, the Kyoshi Warriors, Oyagi, Ty Lee, Master Jeong Jeong, the Boulder, the Hippo, the Duke, Haru and his family, Teo and the Mechanist, the entire Southern Water Tribe and most of the Northern Water Tribe… The faces seemed to be endless.
How far had those three, hapless children, who had set off on a quest to save the world…how far they had come… Aang stared down at Sokka's bent head and felt tears prickle his eyes. He had been flustered and nervous when he had officiated Zuko and Mai's wedding, his very first. He had remembered stumbling through the words that day and even forgetting part of the blessing that should have prefaced the ceremony. He had only been a few months beyond his fourteenth birthday then.
But, even with all his youth and inexperience, the apprehension he'd felt that day was nothing compared to the emotion he felt right then. One of his best friends, his brother in some respects, was getting married. How could he not be overwhelmed with happiness?
Breathing deeply, Aang composed his emotions and loudly, confidently addressed the crowd. "I would like to begin this special day by reciting an Air Nomad blessing on Sokka and Suki's behalf," he said. He cleared his throat and straightened his spine, projecting his voice in a distinctive baritone. "Today we promise to dedicate ourselves completely to each other, with body, speech and mind. In this life, in wealth or poverty, in health or sickness, in war or peace, we will work to help each other perfectly. The purpose of our relationship will be to attain enlightenment by perfecting our kindness and compassion toward all sentient beings."
As a low murmur of agreement went up from among the crowd, Aang bid Sokka and Suki to rise. With shy, trembling smiles, they did so, hands clasped.
"Sokka and Suki are happy today, not only because they can share the joy of their love for each other with friends and family," Aang began, "but also because they had the opportunity to express their aspirations for the future." He directed his gaze towards his friends and smiled. "Sokka and Suki, do you pledge to help each other, to develop your hearts and minds, cultivating compassion, generosity, patience, and wisdom towards each other?"
"We do," they answered in unison.
"And do you recognize that life will not always be smooth and sometimes emotions will be clouded with negativity? Do you pledge to see all these circumstances as a challenge to help you grow, to open your hearts, to accept yourselves and each other? Do you pledge to avoid becoming narrow or closed-minded or opinionated and to always help each other to see various sides of situations?"
Sokka and Suki exchanged another loving glance before answering in unison once more, "We do."
"Understanding that just as we are a mystery to ourselves," Aang continued, "and each other person is also a mystery to us, do you pledge to seek to understand yourselves, each other and all living beings, to examine your own minds continually and to regard all the mysteries of life with curiosity and joy?"
There was not even the slightest bit of hesitation when both Sokka and Suki answered with a resounding, "We do!"
"Then before the Spirits and the Universe I pronounce you bound in matrimony," Aang concluded. "Let no human break the bond that the Spirits themselves have ordained. You may kiss your bride." As Sokka took Suki into his arms for a very sweet, very emotional kiss, another vibrating round of applause went up among the guests. Laughing with joy, Aang cried in a loud, ecstatic tone: "I proudly present to you, Sokka and Suki of the Southern Water Tribe!"
Katara composed a ceremonial waterbending dance in honor of Sokka and Suki's union. It was the first the Southern Water Tribe had enjoyed in nearly a century. Together, the newlyweds sat at the front of the crowd while Katara, Aang and the other waterbenders of the Southern and Northern tribes regaled them with acrobatic feats and twirling stunts of fluid waterbending.
"They're such show offs," Sokka murmured to his bride in aside, grimacing a little at the overt display of affection between his sister and Aang.
"They're beautiful together and you know it," Suki giggled.
"You're beautiful," he countered softly, leaning in for a kiss.
"So are you," Suki sighed.
They were still kissing softly when the waterbenders brought their dance to a finish and bowed before them respectfully. The entertainment was then followed by the wedding feast, which was interspersed with well wishes and gift bearing from the attending guests. While the newlyweds were lost in each other and Mai and Zuko idly chatted with his mother and stepfather and Aang and Katara spent their time pretending not to smile goofily at once another, Toph took advantage of her friends' preoccupation to seek out Iroh.
Though they had covertly held hands during the entirety of the wedding ceremony, in the emotional confusion that followed they'd lost track of one another. She had been crushed between her friends and parents while busily fending off Aang's rapid fire questions that, by the time she found a moment to herself, Iroh had seemingly vanished. Now, after finally ducking out from beneath her parents' watchful eyes, Toph carefully walked the outer ring of the celebration circle, her body alertly in tune with Iroh's body vibrations. Despite the large crowd of guests, she found him a few minutes later, enjoying a celebratory toast with Master Piandao.
"May I join you?" she asked with a secret smile. "Or is this a White Lotus member party only?"
"Feel free to join," Piandao said with a subtle look between the Grand Lotus and the blind earthbender. He smiled at Iroh. "It's time I offered my congratulations to the happy couple." He nodded to Iroh. "Good evening, Grand Lotus." And then he turned and bowed formally to Toph. "Young lady."
"Master Piandao," she returned quietly with a respectful nod. She folded down beside Iroh as the master swordsman walked away. "Well…that was weird," she commented wryly. "I didn't scare him off, did I?"
"He was trying to give us some time alone," Iroh explained as Toph's mouth fell open. "He knows. I told him."
"You told him?" Toph repeated carefully, a little flustered to learn Sokka's master was now fully cognizant of a relationship she hadn't even made known to her own friends yet. "So…what did he say?" she asked with some reluctance. "Does he disapprove?"
"He is…concerned," Iroh phrased. "He is afraid we are going to meet with some…ah…challenges."
"Is that a subtle way of saying people are going to hate on us?" Toph demanded bluntly.
"Hate on us?" Iroh repeated with a frown. "I'm not sure I'm familiar with that phrase."
"They're going to treat us bad," Toph clarified with a laugh. "Because that's usually how people react when they don't understand something. Trust me. I've been getting it all my life."
"Then why would you want to subject yourself to more of it?" Iroh asked with some exasperation.
Toph smiled, groping for his hand to link her fingers with his own. "You're worth it."
On the opposite side of the circle, Zuko half-listened to his mother and Mai's rather graphic discussion on pregnancy woes. When they started talking about certain leaking parts of the anatomy he knew he had to get out of there. "Where are you going?" Mai asked as he rose to his feet.
"To find Uncle," Zuko said. "If I stay here one minute more, you two are going to make me sick."
"You're such a baby," Mai teased him.
"I love you too," he whispered, leaning down for a brief kiss before her bid her and his mother goodbye. He pointedly ignored his stepfather, which incurred an exasperated sigh from his mother.
Zuko walked around the parameter of the camp, saying hello to old friends and acquainting himself with new ones, all the while scanning the dense crowd for his uncle. The sun was just beginning to set behind the snowy outer edges of the South Pole when he found Iroh, secluded far away from the other guests. He and Toph were seated together on a large jagged boulder that jutted up from the snow. Though Toph was merely brushing her fingers lightly over Iroh's cheeks while arguing her case for a clean shaven look, their faces were so close together that, when Zuko saw them, he automatically jumped to all the wrong conclusions.
"What are you two doing?" Zuko cried in absolute horror. Iroh and Toph scrambled apart, but not before Zuko had gotten more than an eyeful. He stood before them, face drained of color, a strange gurgling sound bubbling from his throat whilst he gesticulated wildly.
"Nephew, calm down," Iroh advised serenely. "I know what you just saw might seem shocking to you."
"Shocking to me?" Zuko laughed almost hysterically. "Shocking to me? YOU'RE KISSING ONE OF MY FRIENDS!"
"We weren't kissing at all," Iroh refuted mildly.
"I know what I saw, Uncle!" Zuko exploded, "I KNOW what kissing looks like!"
"Zuko, we're standing right in front on you," Toph said. "There's no need to shout."
"Why would you do this, Uncle?" Zuko ranted. "What are you thinking?"
"It's not a fling, Zuko," Toph explained quietly with a loving, sideways glance at Iroh. "We're in love."
Zuko literally wobbled at the declaration. He palmed his head, which was suddenly swimming. "I think I'm going to pass out." He dropped to the ground, seemingly oblivious to the snow and merely sat there, staring straight ahead and reeling.
"I'll go back to the party and get Mai," Toph volunteered. "You two should probably talk."
"You're shocked," Iroh gathered after Toph had gone. Zuko stabbed him with a dark, penetrating look. "And angry," his uncle added when he saw it.
"She's half your age, Uncle!" Zuko spat. "No. Even saying that is being too generous! She could be your granddaughter! She's practically a child!"
"Don't let Toph hear you say that," Iroh laughed. "She wouldn't approve."
"This isn't the time for jokes, Uncle!" Zuko grated. "Can't you see what a disaster this is?"
Iroh folded down beside him with a grunt. "You think it's a disaster that I've fallen in love?"
"Of course not!" Zuko snapped. "I've always wanted you to find someone and settle down, but… Couldn't you find someone your own age and who was not my friend?"
"What can I say, nephew?" Iroh sighed. "The heart decides. We can only follow it."
As his shock and anger began to wear off, Zuko lifted his eyes and peered at his uncle with a pensive frown. "Is it true?" he whispered. "Are…are you really in love with Toph?"
Iroh expelled a large sigh of contentment. "She makes me feel like I'm twenty again," he confessed with a besotted smile.
Zuko barely repressed a shudder. "Ugh…please, spare me the details on how she makes you feel that," he pleaded. "I've been traumatized enough for one night."
"What's going on?" Mai demanded as she approached them, followed closely by Toph, Aang and Katara. It wasn't enough that he had to endure this fiasco, Zuko thought morosely, he'd have to have an audience as well.
As his wife knelt down beside him, Zuko nodded towards the unexpected newcomers and demanded, "What are you two doing here?"
"Toph looked upset when she came to get Mai," Aang explained. "Katara and I had a pretty good idea of what was happening so we followed. Are you okay, Zuko? You look a little green."
"What do you expect?" Zuko cried. "Have you any idea what I just witnessed?" He gagged a little. "The horrifying image is burned into my brain."
"I don't think it's horrifying," Aang commented. "It's actually pretty romantic." It was Aang's complete lack of shock and dismay that caught Zuko's attention, even more so than his positivity towards the relationship.
"So you did know all about this, didn't you?" he accused softly. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Knew about what?" Mai asked.
"Iroh and I are together," Toph provided simply. "Zuko's having a hard time with it."
Mai barked a short laugh at that, only to realize no one was joining her. She transferred a shocked stare around the solemn faces surrounding her. "Oh wow…you're being serious."
"I found them kissing…" Zuko whimpered, ignoring his uncle's stressed rejoinder that they were NOT kissing. "It was so awful." He shuddered anew as Mai cooed soothing words of reassurance and brought his head to rest against her shoulder. Zuko clung to her, muttering, "I told you! I told you she was flirting with him! I don't care what happens! I'm never calling her Aunt Toph!"
"Wow…" Mai said again, bouncing a look between Toph and Iroh. "This is a shock."
"It would be nice if you could be happy for us," Toph requested meekly.
"Hello? What's going on?" Sokka cried in exasperation as he trudged through the snow towards them, dragging Suki behind him as he did. "Why are you guys way out here? It's supposed to be our wedding celebration! You should be paying attention to us, not having secret meetings! Can't you people go one night without hysterics?"
"Sorry, Sokka," Toph replied mournfully. "Honestly, we didn't intend for it to come out this way. We were going to tell everyone after you and Suki came back from Kyoshi, when things were calmer."
"Tell everyone what?" Suki asked with a blank frown.
"Iroh and Toph are together," Aang provided helpfully. And before another round of craziness could break out within the group, he added definitively, "And you should know before you say anything that I'm happy for her. Katara's happy for her. But, most importantly, Toph is happy. It would be nice if her best friend, whose opinion she values more than anything, could be happy for her as well, Sokka."
The words found their mark. Sokka visibly struggled between giving into the verbal meltdown that raged inside him and holding his tongue in the face of Toph's desperate and unconcealed need for his approval. Torn and dismayed, he turned a questioning look towards his wife who encouraged him with a wordless nod and a loving smile. He had a lot of misgivings about the relationship and, already, his mind was going through all the negativity both Toph and Iroh would surely face as a result of pursuing it. His gut reaction told him it was a disaster in the making. But then he couldn't ignore the fact that they evidently had Katara and Aang's backing. Honestly, Sokka knew that if his sister and friend were okay with it then he had to imagine Toph and Iroh would do just fine.
He turned back to face Toph with a rueful sigh. "I'm…I'm shocked," he finally confessed in a halting breath.
"That's understandable," Toph acknowledged.
"And I don't know how good an idea it is for you to be involved with someone who is so much older than you," Sokka went on candidly. "Not to mention he's Zuko's uncle, which only increases the weird factor. I don't have great expectations for this whole thing."
Toph digested that with a thoughtful frown. "Hmm…okay."
"But," Sokka prefaced fairly, "Iroh is a good guy. He's an awesome guy," he stressed meaningfully, "and if he makes you happy, Toph, who am I to stand in the way of that? I don't want to stand in the way of that." When Toph came flying into his arms, he was prepared for it and Sokka hugged her tight. "You know that all I've ever wanted was for you to be happy, right?" he whispered in her ear.
"I know that," she whispered back. "And I am. I really am."
"Then I'll support you every step of the way," Sokka vowed softly. "You're going to need it."
"We'll all support you, Toph," Suki added, joining the embrace. A few seconds later, Aang and Katara followed suit as well.
It took Zuko a bit longer to warm up to the idea because he was still in shock. He stood apart from them with a sullen pout, wanting to go forward but clearly too stubborn to do so. Eventually though, he was left no choice because Katara reached out and snagged hold of his wrist, yanking him forward in a neck snapping jerk.
Sighing in defeat, Zuko converged in the group hug as well, shooting a glare at his uncle because he was the cause of the whole debacle. Next, Katara turned her attention to Mai, her intention to grab the older woman as well suspended when Mai narrowed her eyes in a warning glare. Thinking better of the decision, Katara settled for beckoning her sullen friend forward instead. Mai rolled her eyes with a heavy sigh as if to say, "Ugh. Again? I barely even like you people," before contributing as much as she was able. She wrapped her arms around the huddled mass with another unenthusiastic sigh. Iroh stood apart from them, watching the scene with proud, humbled eyes.
"Okay, okay, that's enough! Now if we're finished with this little comedy of errors," Mai interrupted irreverently, breaking up the tender moment as she took a reflexive step backwards, "could we please get back to the wedding feast? I'm starving!"
"Hey," Sokka cried in mock affront as they all fell into step together, paired off into respective couples and smiling, "you know that was supposed to be my line!"
As expected, his whining was met with an answering chorus of laughing groans from his friends. For Sokka, it seemed the perfect end to a perfect day.