Part Nine

Sokka looked down at Toph's reclining form on the steps outside of Iroh's teashop with a raised eyebrow. "You know, I'm getting this strange sense we've done something like this before."

"Gee, you think?" She tilted her head in his direction lazily. "Us talking outside at night is not exactly a fresh new idea."

"You know what I mean." He waved aside her distinction, taking a seat just a few steps up from her. "Out here was where I totally pissed you off without knowing how, before this whole thing started."

"Yeah, well, you were kind of a jerk." She tucked her hands behind her head comfortably. "Even if you didn't know it."

"Thanks. I can totally feel the love." He leaned back on his elbows, shooting her a brief sidelong glance. "So, we're cool, right? You're still okay to be around Suki and me, even though - ?"

"Yeah, it's cool." Toph smiled a bit, without adding a mocking undertone. "I've been around you guys this long without going nuts, so I think I can manage it. Not like me planting my lips on you changes any of that."

"True, but now I know you wanted to," Sokka pointed out, spreading his hands as much as he could with the position they were in. "You don't think that's going to make things awkward?"

"Nope. Well, not for me." She quirked an eyebrow at him. "But if you feel awkward? Totally not my problem."

He frowned at her. "Well, it is your fault. Partly, anyway. You know, with the kissing out of nowhere and all..."

"I admit, it was a spur of the moment thing." Toph shrugged, leaning further back against the stairs. "Not my best plan. I pretty much regretted it right at first - especially when you decided to be a complete idiot afterwards." She shot him a pointed look.

Sokka felt himself going red. "Didn't we agree never to speak of that again?"

"Whatever." She waved a dismissive hand. "Anyway, you'll have plenty of time to get used to it, since we probably won't be seeing each other for a while."

He stared at her. "What do you mean?"

"Just what I said: we won't be seeing each other for a while." Toph's voice was typically nonchalant, and her expression was bland. "I want to travel on my own for a while. You guys are all pairing up, and, to be perfectly honest, it's starting to get kind of nauseating. Iroh offered to let me stay with him while I get things sorted out, and then, well..." She shrugged again. "We'll see where I end up."

"You serious?" Sokka felt a sudden pang at the thought. Toph was one of his closest friends; the thought of not seeing her all the time was... well, it stunk! "You really think you have to do this?"

"I don't just think - I know I do." She rolled her eyes at his obvious dismay. "Don't be so dramatic about it. This doesn't have anything to do with you; it's about me. I need a little time to myself, and with you guys going all domestic? It's just not giving me the right mood."

"But - But - " He was aware, distantly, that he was being kind of childish about this, but just couldn't help it. "That doesn't mean you should just abandon us!" he blurted, after struggling with the words for a few seconds.

"Get over it." She raised an eyebrow at him. "It's not like I'll never see you again. I'll make sure to drop in here and there - to keep you on your toes, if nothing else. I just can't be around every second. Much as I like hanging out with you guys, tagging along while you all make googly eyes at each other is really getting old."

"Oh yeah? Well - " Sokka opened his mouth to argue, realized he had nothing to say, and shut it again. "You know what? Whatever. You're just gonna do what you feel like whether I like it or not, aren't you?"

Toph grinned then. "Pretty much."

"Well - well, then fine. Whatever. See if I care." He sank back against the stairs, with an aggrieved sigh. Somehow, deep down, he knew Toph had a point. It was probably hard feeling like the odd man out, especially with him bringing up the marriage proposal and all... "I just wish you weren't leaving after - you know - that. We could've had a better goodbye."

"Yeah, I've been thinking about that..." She stretched then, with a casual air that looked almost deliberate. "And I kinda think thing this was all a good thing. In a way."

Sokka stared at her again, feeling his mouth hang open. "A good thing?" he repeated, incredulously. "What about this whole stupid messy business was good?"

"Think about it." Toph waved a hand vaguely, turning her face toward him again. "You're more convinced than ever that you want to marry Suki, instead of half thinking you need to give up on her. Right?"

He thought about it for a moment - his recent pondering on his original proposal and how he'd planned to revise it. And then there was his determination to figure out what was behind her hesitation, and how they could work out whatever it was. Neither of those had been there before all of this started. "Okay, maybe that's true but - "

"And then there's me," she interrupted him, and that smile was back - the sincere, no-string-attached, no mocking intended smile. "I've been holding onto this crush for, what? Three years now?" She seemed unconcerned about that fact. "But now I know what it's like to kiss you, and I gotta be honest." She pulled a face. "It's not that great."

Sokka felt his eyebrows come down. "You saying I'm a bad kisser?"

"No - well, maybe, but that's not the point." Toph shrugged a third time. "I'm just ready to get over it."

"Oh." He narrowed his eyes a little, trying to figure out if he still needed to be offended - then gave up. "Okay, I guess that's all right."

"Duh." She tucked her hands back behind her head and turned up to the sky again with a satisfied sort of look on her face.

The answering smile spreading on Sokka's face felt somehow similar. "Yeah, duh, yourself," he told her, and turned his own eyes back up toward the clouds.

Katara couldn't say she was surprised when she turned from locking the front door of Aang's house and found him watching her with a mix of apprehension and anxiety. "Sorry if I surprised you," she offered, feeling her own determined expression soften into a smile. "I just didn't want the others listening in or anything."

"It's okay." Aang relaxed a little at that, returning her smile. "I kind of wanted to talk to you too; I just wasn't expecting you to - well, you know." He shrugged.

She rolled her eyes. "I don't think Sokka would've shut up if I hadn't."

"Yeah, you're probably right."

There was a moment of awkward silence.

"So, Aang - "

"Katara, I - "

This was so typical; Katara had to bite her lip against sudden, irrational laughter. "Okay, you go ahead," she suggested.

"Sure." He rubbed at the back of his head, obviously nervous, and she couldn't help but find the gesture oddly endearing. "I thought about this a lot while I was waiting for you to get here - about how we were fighting, back before all of this stated. And... I want to apologize. I mean," he added, before she could cut in, "none of what you said made any sense. I still don't really get it. But it's not like I let you explain or anything, so" - he shrugged again, and favoured her with a small, apologetic smile - "that's probably why."

"No, I think you were right the first time - it didn't make any sense." Katara squirmed under his curious gaze and looked away, still feeling a bit embarrassed about the whole business. "I just didn't realize it until I met you in the Spirit World, and then - well, you know what happened then." She could feel herself blushing faintly. "Without having grown up with you, I never would've thought you were too young. And that made me realize that I was getting carried away trying to protect you. I just... wasn't giving you enough credit." She took in a long breath and met his eyes again, squarely. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry too." He regarded her just as guiltily. "I could've listened to you, instead of getting all upset. I mean, I'm sure you had your reasons."

"Yeah... but they were stupid reasons." Katara sighed, a little frustrated at how difficult it was to express her regret over her earlier behaviour. Even after all the thought she'd given it on the way back... "I should've listened to you too. I guess it's just hard to admit to myself that things change. We've changed. And things between us have changed, too." She looked up a bit hesitantly. "In a good way."

Aang studied her for a moment, and then tentatively started, "So, that time in the forest - "

"I don't regret it, if that's what you're thinking." She had to get that understood right at the start. "Do you?"

"No! No way! Of course not!" He shook his head furiously, and then stared at her, looking nervous all over again. "But - uh - it totally wasn't what I'd imagined."

Katara had to agree there. I wouldn't change it, though. It just... worked, somehow. "Would you do it differently a second time?" she challenged.

"Well..." He flushed, but still met her eyes, almost sheepishly. "I think next time I could make things better for you. I mean, it was pretty quick, and you didn't even - uh. You know..."

"Oh. Yeah." She felt the heat reach her own cheeks, and managed a small smile in return. "Aang, honestly, it was still good. I - I liked it." It was hard to make the admission, somehow. Even now, after everything.

Is this ever going to not feel awkward?

"Yeah, but I think you'll like it even better next time." His gaze was earnest. "And - well - I kind of still haven't seen you naked. Not for real, anyway," he muttered, and rubbed the back of his neck, shrugging uncomfortably at the confused look she shot him. "I'd like to, though."

"Me too." That faint shadowy glimpse she'd caught during their time in the forest still haunted her brain. "I mean, I want to see you," she clarified, and shrugged a little, still smiling. "This time."

The grin that lit his face in response was typically bright. "Katara, I love you!" he blurted all of a sudden, full of sincerity and enthusiasm as he pulled her into his arms and kissed her fervently.

Katara continued smiling against his lips, then pulled back slightly, staring up at him with heavy-lidded eyes. A wicked sort of idea had struck her. "You know what?" she said, almost conversationally. "We should get married."

His eyes went wide - so wide that the whites of them seemed to glow in the dim light. "M-Married?" he croaked out; obviously, he hadn't expected it. "You - You think?"

She shrugged - maybe a bit theatrically. "I'm ready when you are." And then she laughed, pulling him into a tight hug. "But I don't mind waiting."

The End