Published January 15, 2014

"Thoughts and Words"

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, ii

"Katara and Zuko are back!" The announcement came from Suki, the first one to spot Appa flying back to the campsite in the morning.

Aang and Toph stopped their earthbending practice and ran back to the campsite. Appa landed on the cliffs a moment later, the four teammates running up to him.

"Hey guys," Toph greeted.

"It's just Zuko," Aang informed her, seeing the sole passenger come down.

Sokka's eyes searched the empty saddle. "Where is Katara?" It took a little effort to keep his voice calm.

"I dropped her off at the hiding place I picked out."

"Which is …" Suki said.

"Ember Island. My family used to go on vacations there. We have a house, but it hasn't been used in years. No one would think to look for us there."

"All right, a vacation!" Aang cheered.

Zuko frowned at him. "Not for you and me. These field trips have used up a lot of our training time."

"Hey, I practiced while you were gone. And Toph's been drilling me in earthbending."

Sokka interrupted. "So what happened? Did you guys, you know, do it?"

"We found him living out his retirement. Katara made him tell the whole story. But she didn't kill him. She walked away."

Aang gave a satisfied sigh of relief. Sokka looked amazed, in a strange way. Zuko looked at the young Avatar. "You were right about what Katara needed. Violence wasn't the answer."

"It never is," Aang agreed.

He said it so simply, even happily, and using that definitive word, never. But if he really believed that to be true …

"Then, what are you going to do when you face my father?"

Aang's smile disappeared, replaced with a troubled expression, as though he had never thought deeply about it. Zuko shook his head. "Don't answer that now. Just think about it. We need to get going."

Aang didn't move until Toph took his hand and led him back toward the tents, which Suki started to dismantle. Sokka hung back, looking critically at Zuko. "You left Katara by herself?"

"I thought she could use some time alone," Zuko explained.

Sokka hesitated. "Did she break down, or anything? You know—cry, even if it was just to get it all out?"

"Kind of … but only after we'd talked and shared our dark pasts." Actually, she had cried after learning about his own mother, and when they finally talked about them, their complex and angst-ridden relationship. Now, he wondered … Had she cried over him rather than her mother? Of course, she had probably shed more tears for her mother, in the years after her death.

"So … what's your status?" Sokka asked, interrupting Zuko's speculation.

"What do you mean?"

"Are you guys … okay?"

Zuko actually smiled. "Yeah, we're good now. It's safe to say we're friends."

"Oh. Good." Sokka actually smiled slightly as he started back toward his tent.

Zuko found himself following the younger warrior. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

Sokka hesitated, only because the last thing Zuko had asked him about was his mother's death. But then he complied, "Sure."

"You and Suki are a couple, but you're also, you know, allies—or teammates … how do you make that work?"

Sokka stopped, and looked at him. "Are you asking for dating advice?"

"No." Sokka folded his arms, unconvinced. Zuko sighed. "Maybe. Or just friendship advice."

Sokka looked deep in thought. He remembered meeting Suki, and not taking her seriously as a warrior, and asking for her pardon later on. He thought of how they had worked to help and protect each other, each in their own time.

After a moment Sokka resumed walking. "Respect," he said finally. "And interdependence. And a little forgiveness, too."

Zuko turned those words over in his mind. Respect. Long ago he had admitted that he respected Katara, before he admitted that he cared for her. Interdependence. They had helped each other at different times, and they had worked together during their last mission. Forgiveness. He they had finally built that bridge just last night.

"Humility, too," Sokka said suddenly. "I didn't take her seriously at first, but she turned out to be a better warrior than me. I had to let go of my pride before we could see eye to eye."

There was something Zuko sometimes struggled with. There had been a time when he tried to hide behind his pride, though Katara had seen through it. And most recently Katara had stubbornly held her pride, until she let it crumble down the previous night.

It took courage and humility to love someone, to hold down your ego and bare your soul. That's what the confession of love really was, exposing yourself—figuratively, of course—to the judgment of another person whose opinion mattered to you.

They arrived at Ember Island around midday. "Wow, this place is beautiful," Suki said, marveling at the bison's-eye view.

"Is it actually made of embers?" Toph asked. She was half serious.

"No," Aang answered, "it has sandy beaches and some rocks and cliffs, and there are houses."

"There's a whole town, too," Zuko informed them. "We can get food and supplies there."

"We'll have to get you a Fire Nation civilian disguise," Sokka told Suki as they landed in front of Zuko's family's house.

Within minutes the teenagers were running through the building, scouting out the old rooms. "They're pretty much all empty. You guys can pick out where you want to sleep," Zuko said.

"Can I make an earth tent in the courtyard?"

"Sure, just flatten it out during the day. We'll probably use that space for training."

"Got it."

Zuko called down the corridor. "Katara?"

"I'm up here!" Katara's voice was somewhat distant—she was on the upper floor.

Zuko went up the stairs to the attic, lowering his voice as he came closer. "We're back. I think Sokka wants to see you—" He stopped at the doorway.

Katara was on her knees among the piles of belongings, though some of the piles had been taken apart and their items scattered on the floor. Katara turned toward him, and he saw that she had changed into Fire Nation clothes, something he'd never seen her wear before. It showed more skin, leaving her midriff and her right shoulder exposed. It wasn't a bad look for her …

They both blushed, Zuko because he realized he was staring, and Katara because she felt as though she'd been caught doing something wrong. She was looking through his family's history, after all.

"What are you doing here?" His tone wasn't accusatory.

"I came up to look for cooking pots … I swear I wasn't snooping, I just …"

She trailed off as Zuko looked past her at the pile of old belongings. He walked over and knelt down, picking out an old portrait. He smiled. "I tried to burn this, last time I came here. Ty Lee saved it. She seemed to think I might still need it."

Katara leaned over to look, and was surprised by the image. It was a family of four. She recognized Fire Lord Ozai from the picture Aang had brought home from the Fire Nation school; Azula was recognizable; and she could even see Zuko's resemblance to the boy in the picture, though the boy had a full ponytail and a face free of any scar. The only person she hadn't seen before was the woman behind Zuko.

"Is this your mother?"

"Yeah." Zuko put the picture down gently. "I kept a portrait of her in my room at the palace. I left it behind, but I set it up in a sort of memorial in my room." It had been a sort of final stand—besides standing up to Ozai—a way of showing that his love and loyalty still lay with his mother, rather than his father. Zuko wondered if they had discovered it, or even destroyed it. His bedroom had probably been turned inside out, and then made up like an empty guest room.

"She looks lovely."

"Yeah. She was." He used the past tense, as though he believed that she was no more.

Katara looked at Zuko. "When all of this is over—I'll help you look for her."

Zuko was startled. She said it so simply and sincerely, as though they were talking about plans for their next field trip. She didn't see it the way he did, as a nearly impossible task.

But then again, he had just helped her do something she'd thought impossible, finding the man who killed her own mother. This was a far more daunting task, considering they didn't know where or how to start searching. But she was so full of hope, she believed it was an attainable goal. And she wanted to help him achieve it.

"Thank you." Zuko didn't know what else to say, what words could show his gratitude for her willingness to help him.

Katara smiled. Zuko smiled back. He looked down at the picture again, and was about to look back at her when they heard Sokka yelling. "Zuko! Did you find Katara?"

Zuko turned away so his shout wouldn't be in Katara's ear. "Yeah, we're upstairs." Then he turned back and spoke in a normal tone. "We'd better get down there."

"Right. Um—will you help me with these?" She gestured to the pile of cooking utensils she'd found.

"Sure." Zuko picked up half of the pile and left the room. Katara followed him wordlessly, feeling as though they had failed to finish a moment—like there was something more they should have said, or done.

She could have kissed him, then, while they were alone … Katara blushed at the thought. She probably wouldn't have been thinking that way, if it weren't for the fact that he had kissed her the night before. Katara hadn't bothered herself about it, not only because she'd been so close to sleep, but also because it had felt nice, and somehow, right.

It hadn't been a romantic kiss. Not really. It had been … affectionate, she supposed. Yes. It was a gentle kiss, like the one she had given Jet, or the kind that she might give Aang or Toph or a young child.

He had waited until he thought she was asleep. Why? They'd held each other for a long time, he hugged her before she went to sleep, he could have kissed her then. Had he thought that would be inappropriate? Even just a kiss on the cheek?

Why was she even speculating over this?

Katara answered her own question immediately: Because it matters.

It mattered to her, how he felt about her … and that was right, because they were friends … or something like that.

They used to dance in the gray area between enemies and friends; now it seemed they had moved into the gray space between friends and … lovers, she supposed.

Katara remembered trying to describe it to Toph. "I couldn't love him until I trusted him enough to not be afraid of him."

She trusted him now. She wasn't afraid of him anymore, for her sake or for the team's. That meant she was free to love him, if she so chose.

Part of her had always loved him. Hadn't she hinted at that, when she told him how much she had been hurting lately? She had said that she cared about him, and that was the foundation of love.

"I can't control my feelings, but I can control how I act on them."

There were two ways to love someone, then: in thoughts, and in actions. Feelings could be involuntary, but one had to make a conscious decision whether to accept or reject them, and whether to let them affect one's actions. That was what she needed to decide.

The feeling of sand still made Toph think of the Si Wong Desert, but the ocean breeze and the sound of the surf reassured her that there was water nearby.

Sand and an excess of water were two things that rendered her truly blind. But sand was a form of earth, and Toph was determined to master it as well.

She plopped down on the beach and dug her feet into the sand. She was slightly surprised to find that underneath the fine, warm sand there was a layer of cooler, firmer sand. This layer hadn't been baked in the sun; maybe it was moister?

For a while Toph played idly in the sand, the way she had when she was a toddler in a sandbox. She grasped a handful of sand, and squeezed until most of it had fallen through her fingers. She dropped or poured sand from one hand into the other, back and forth, spilling a little with each transfer. Then she scooped up some of the firmer sand and mixed it with the finer, flexing her hand around it.

Toph stood to stretch her legs, and found herself walking down the slope of the beach, in the general direction of the water. The sand surprised her again: the top layer became smooth, flat and hard-packed, for a few yards. A wreath of shells and seaweed lined the shore, which now felt wet under her feet. Then came something strange: the sand was still firm, but here it was set in a wavy pattern, like rows of tiny hills and valleys. Toph wondered if the ocean waves had made this design.

She didn't pick up any vibrations until her friend was just two yards away. "Hey," Aang greeted. He looked out over the water. "Great beach, huh?" It was a step up from most of the volcanic islands they had visited in the Fire Nation.

"Yeah." Toph heard a slight splash as Aang crossed the sea strand into the water.

"It's low tide now, even more shallow than usual," Aang said, as though he could sense her wavering. She followed him slowly, until the water was at her calves. She could still feel the ridges of sand beneath her feet.

"The waves feel great," Aang said with relish. Toph couldn't argue that. It still seemed strange to her, feeling movement from something that wasn't alive. But then again, she had felt earth move before; fire could grow, or shrink, or spread; and at this moment she could feel the air around her moving as wind. All the elements were nonliving but essential to life, so much that they seemed to almost emulate it.

"Yeah," Toph agreed, feeling one wave after another brush past them. "It's like you can feel the whole world breathing."

Aang looked at her in wonder. "That's what Huu said when we met him in the swamp." Would coincidences never cease? Or was it something more than coincidences—a touch of destiny? Had Huu known that Toph would know that?

Aang gave up trying to puzzle it out. He looked out at the water, taking in the beauty of the sunlight on the waves. He wanted to describe it to Toph but he wasn't sure what use to words. How could he explain sparkle or shimmer to a blind person? Could she understand or imagine a horizon?

"Are you going to swim?" Toph asked casually.

"Oh! Yeah. Actually, I was thinking … this is the perfect place for you to master swimming."

"Mm, I don't know … I was actually thinking about focusing on my sandbending while we're here."

"Why are you so reluctant?"

"Why are you so persistent?"

"You should know why. Remember when you started teaching me earthbending?"

Toph snorted softly. "How could I forget?"

"You wouldn't give up on me, because you knew I could do it. And I'm not giving up on you, because I know you can do this."

Toph grimaced. She appreciated his confidence in her—something her parents had never shown—but for once it seemed misplaced.

"You don't have to be scared," Aang said, trying to sound both gentle and coaxing.

"I'm not scared, I'm just frustrated. I don't like not being good at something."

"Well, no one's good at everything."

Toph heaved a sigh. "All right, maybe I am scared. But not of drowning."

"Of what, then?"

"I'm scared that they're right," she confessed.

Aang blinked at her. "Who? Your parents?"

"When I'm in the water, I actually feel blind, and helpless. I hate feeling that way. And I hate being scared."

"It's okay to be scared. It makes us human. When I met with Guru Pathik, the first thing he had me meditate on was my own fear. Because admitting your fear is the first and hardest step in overcoming it."

Toph considered this. She knew if she didn't keep trying, she'd spend the rest of her life knowing that she had never accomplished this skill. "You really believe in me?"

"If I could learn to stand my ground, you can learn to swim in water."

"Okay," Toph relented. "If you're so determined to help me, I'll try."

They left most of their clothes on the sand and then reentered the water, moving deeper than before. "I have an idea for something that might help." Aang held his hands out palms-down, and froze a sheet of ice a few feet long and about an inch thick. It bobbed on the water's surface. "Ice floats. You can hold on to this while you learn to float."

Toph actually let out a laugh. "I think you just had your first Sokka moment!"

"What, the rest of us can't have good ideas? Come on, try it."

Toph tried a few different ways to use the ice board. She held on with her arms across it, kicking her legs to swim forward. She floated on top of it, first on her stomach, and then on her back, trying to keep her balance on it. Aang could tell that Toph was actually enjoying moving freely in the water.

The ice melted in less than an hour, enough time that Toph felt confident enough to attempt floating on her own. But when she tried, she ended up sinking and floundering in the water until she found her footing.

"Do you want me to support you?" Aang offered, slightly hesitant.


If Aang was surprised, he didn't show it. Toph arched backwards, and Aang held her with his arms under her back. It was reassuring, to feel his hands holding her up. "Just see if you can put more weight on the water than on my arms. Spread yourself out …"

"Guys!" Aang looked at the beach and saw Zuko standing there, watching them. "If you're done fooling around," Zuko said, folding his arms, "Aang and I need to train."

"Aw." Aang's expression was pleading. "Five more minutes? She's really close!"

"You can let go now," Toph informed him quietly.

"Huh?" Her choice of words startled him, and his hands slipped out from under her stomach; Toph instantly sank, dunking herself in the water before she found her footing and stood up. "Sorry!" Aang said when she broke the surface.

Toph spat seawater out of her mouth, spraying some of it on him. "S'okay," she muttered, shaking her head. The two preteens collected their clothes and followed Zuko back up to the beach house. "Thanks for the lesson," Toph remembered to say.

"You're welcome, any time. We can try again later."

Zuko and Aang spent the next several hours training. Katara watched them, and would have felt weird about it if Toph hadn't also been hanging out in the courtyard. The two firebenders finished just before Sokka and Suki returned from the town with surprising news.

"You guys are not going to believe this. There's a play about us."

Zuko was the most reluctant to go to the Ember Island Players production. He was the only one who knew that the show would not be very entertaining, or at least not good quality. But it was a group activity, and he didn't want to be the only one skipping out.

He hesitated when he saw the empty seat next to Katara. A week ago, he would have avoided sitting next to her because it wouldn't have been a pleasant arrangement for either of them. Now … well, if they were friends, he shouldn't think twice about it. He slid next to her on the bench. "Hey," he said.

She glanced at him, slightly surprised. "Hey."

Aang stood next to the bench. "Um … could you two move down a seat?" he asked Katara and Zuko.

"Sure," Katara said. Zuko frowned reluctantly but slid to the end of the bench. Katara took his seat, and Aang sat down between Katara and Toph.

"You'll have to tell me what's happening," Toph said to him.

"Okay—it's starting now." The lights in the theater dimmed then, and the play began.

At first, they were full of anticipation and excitement to see their own story told. They knew it would be surreal, but they assumed it would be in a good way.

They could not have been more mistaken.

The humor was lame, the characters one-dimensional, their personalities outrageously exaggerated. Aang was dismayed to see that his character was played by a girl. Zuko was not impressed with his counterpart, even when he said the same words he used in hushed conversation with Katara. Sokka was embarrassed by his actor's cross-dressing scene, and a little hurt by Suki's laughter next to him. Toph was the only person thoroughly enjoying herself.

Katara and the boys were startled to see that some of the actors for the pirates were, in fact, the pirates that they had fought against so many months before. Zuko instinctively put his hand over Katara's, only to pull it away. Katara glanced at him in surprise, and then smirked slightly at the how tense he'd become.

"I'll save you from the pirates," she whispered. Zuko's lip curled, as though he was fighting back a smile.

Onstage, Actor Zuko tricked Actress Katara into coming with him to hide from the pirates. They exited the stage just as Actor Sokka and Actress Aang got away from the pirates during a poorly choreographed battle. "Prince Zuko captured Katara," Actress Aang said in amazement, over-emphasizing each word.

"Hmph! Nice try, Avatar. I'm not falling for your pranks anymore."

"It's not a prank! Katara's gone."

"Seriously? Then we have to rescue her!" Actor Sokka sounded hysterical. "Zuko's so desperate for honor, he'll probably steal hers!"

Suki let out a single, involuntary laugh. Sokka's mouth dropped open, aghast, completely disgusted by their attempt at humor. Zuko and Katara both sank lower in their seats.

Things got worse as the actors played out Zuko seducing his prisoner with promises of love, waterbending lessons, diplomatic immunity, and even a royal wedding.

"You can baby-sit the Avatar, or join me on my quest. Every prince needs a princess, Katara." Actor Zuko got down on one knee, holding her hand in both of his. "Will you be mine?"

"Oh, Zuko, how can I say no?"

It was all Toph could do to muffle her constant laughter. Katara sank lower and lower in her seat, wishing she had a hood like Zuko.

"Say no, Katara!" Actress Aang's voice trilled. A moment later she "flew" out over the audience, holding on to the tiny glider that was more like a decorative fan. She landed on the ship scenery and reached for Actress Katara.

"Don't leave me, Katara!" Actor Zuko cried, trying to hold her back.

"I'm sorry, Zuko. I must follow the path my heart dictates. But we'll meet again. At least I can leave you with a gift. Hope!" With that Actress Katara kissed her stage lover and then took Actress Aang's hand, and both of them "flew" away.

Actor Zuko shook a fist at them, crying, "Curse you Avatar Aang!"

"So, how much of that actually happened that way?" Suki asked during the intermission. She had only been in one brief scene, when the group visited Kyoshi Island. She didn't know how what else was based on fact.

"The events were mostly the same, but they didn't happen like that!" Katara insisted.

"I'm not so sure. You guys didn't feel their hearts speed up during the pirate scene," Toph said smugly.

"Toph," Zuko cut in, "some of those people onstage were the actual pirates we saw. The ones who fought us, and tried to assassinate me a month later. If they recognize us, we'll be in big trouble."

"I don't think there's any chance that'll happen," Katara said soothingly.

"I'm kind of annoyed by the Blue Spirit discrepancy."

"Isn't it a good thing, that they didn't make that connection? It means your secret's safe."

"It wouldn't make much difference. I'm already a fugitive," Zuko said ruefully.

Sokka came back laden with snacks and grievances. It was strange, but complaining was almost like bonding for the group.

"I think we're all looking at this the wrong way," Katara said finally. Everyone looked at her in surprise as she continued, "We could be more reflective about the story. This play shows how much we've done, how far we've come, in less than one year."

"You're right," Toph agreed. "Like, how you and Zuko were enemies, then love interests, then enemies, almost friends, then enemies, and now friends again."

Zuko's skin almost matched the color of his scar and hood. Katara grit her teeth. "If we weren't in public, you would be soaked right now."

Toph's smile didn't lessen. "Listen, friends. It's obvious that the playwright did his research. I know it must hurt, but what you're seeing up there on that stage is the truth."

"Maybe from one point of view," Zuko muttered as they went back inside.

Everyone felt tense toward the end of the second act. They were approaching the lowest point in their story, the part when Suki was imprisoned, the Earth Kingdom fell, and Aang nearly died. It was the lowest point for all of them—though it was hard to say who went lower, Aang or Zuko.

Zuko would have argued that he was the worst, because he had been deliberate in the mistakes he made. He thought about leaving so he wouldn't have to see himself betray Katara and Iroh.

Katara was embarrassed that the script included her mistake, betraying Zuko and Iroh's location to Azula. This was Actor Zuko's reason for being so angry with her stage counterpart.

"I thought you loved me enough to forgive me," Actress Katara wept.

"I don't love you," Actor Zuko spat. "I never loved you!"

Zuko's mouth dropped open just slightly. Katara looked startled, and a little bit disturbed.

"I couldn't care less about you!" Actor Zuko concluded.

"Well, I must care about you, because I hate you!" Actress Katara spat.

Sokka looked nonplussed. "That doesn't even make sense," he muttered.

"Yes it does," Suki whispered back.

Zuko wanted to turn around and glare at them. But then Katara touched his hand, and he glanced sideways to meet her eyes. She wasn't trying to reassure him. She was looking for reassurance.

Zuko gave it, willingly. He turned his hand over so he was holding hers, and squeezed gently. He shook his head just slightly, seeming to indicate the stage, his eyes beseeching her. Katara seemed to understand. She bowed her head slightly before turning her eyes back on the scene before them.

After a minute, their hands felt sweaty, and they released each other.

They proceeded to watch as Zuko chose between Azula and Iroh. For a moment it seemed that he was going to stand with Iroh, but then he pushed Actor Iroh to the side, exclaiming, "I hate you, Uncle. You smell, and I hate you for all time."

Katara was shocked, and turned to Zuko. "You didn't really say that, did you?"

Zuko looked away. "I might as well have," he said somberly.

Everyone cringed at the end of the act, when Azula declared the Avatar dead, and the audience below them cheered. Aang stood up immediately and stalked out of the box. The others came out more slowly, slightly dazed from reliving such a nightmarish memory.

The corridor outside their box was mostly empty. "Where did Aang go?" Katara wondered aloud.

"I'll look for him," Zuko volunteered.

"I'm going to get some fire gummies," Sokka announced. Suki followed him, leaving Toph and Katara sitting against the wall in the hallway.

"Do you think Aang's okay?" Toph asked.

Katara shrugged. "He just watched his worst defeat onstage. I imagine he's pretty upset. You would be too if people cheered at your death."

"Yeah, I guess so. But I don't get why everyone's getting so worked up about their characters. It's just a bunch of strangers misinterpreting us."

"You're different, Toph. You don't care about what other people think of you—unless they laud your talent. Your portrayal is just the way you'd like it. But for the rest of us, it's like a slap in the face."

"What is it that really bothers you? The fact that it's based on—well, facts?"

"Maybe. I guess it's like any stereotype or cliché: they're dangerous because they're based on only part of the truth." She cast a glance at Toph. "Are you really okay with the fact that your character is a man?"


"But—though it pains me to admit it—part of what makes you so remarkable is that you're an adorable little girl. You go exactly against what people expect. So far the only strong females in this play are Suki and the Fire Nation girls. I've been demoted to a teary damsel in distress, and you've been made into a man with no conflicting family ties."

For the first time that evening, Toph sounded a little rueful. "I bet they changed my age and gender so they wouldn't be encouraging kids to think for themselves, let alone defy their parents."

"Yeah … and maybe so there wouldn't be any chance for Aang to find a girlfriend."

Toph frowned. "What did you say?"

"Your hearing is better than mine, Toph. You heard what I said."

"And what makes you think …"

Katara smiled a little. "I can see the signs, Toph. You and Aang are always drawn to each other. And unlike you, I can see the way he looks at you."

Toph willed herself not to blush. "What of it?"

"Nothing. It's not my business, any more than my love life is yours. And I promise, I won't tell anyone about your crush if you don't make fun of mine."

"Fair enough." Toph punched her friend's arm.

"Ow!" Katara rubbed the sore spot, then got to her feet. "I'm going to take a walk. Do you want to come?"

"Nah, you go ahead." Toph remained sitting, feeling Katara's footsteps fade down the corridor. It was only a few minutes before she became bored. Finally, she stood up with a vague idea of looking for Aang and Zuko.

She wandered around the halls inside, before coming to the door that led to the ceilinged balcony overlooking the beach. It was harder to feel vibrations on the raised wooden floorboards, but she could hear Aang and Zuko's voices around the corner. As she came closer to the threshold, she could make out Aang's words.

"Look, Katara was the first friend I made after I came out of the iceberg. She's amazing. She's kind and affectionate and smart. She was so quick to be my friend, to leave her home to help me. And she's so good and fun—how could I live with her and not have feelings for her?"

Toph pressed her hand over her mouth and turned on her heel, walking out of earshot of the boys.

How could he?

Hadn't he hinted to her that he liked her? Hadn't he recognized her own hints and gestures of a love that was more than platonic? They had danced together, and taught each other bending and swimming, and had more fun together, had more in common! Didn't they?

She had always interpreted Aang's actions toward Katara as friendly, and his actions toward her as—not romantic, but—different, special. She had told herself that his relationship with Katara wasn't a big deal, that those two were more like siblings. Even though they had known each other longer, and Katara had left her home more willingly than Toph had, and Aang had seen Katara rather than Toph in trouble, and Katara had been the one to save Aang with her exceptional healing …

Aang's own words answered her question: How could he not?

The pain in her chest brought tears to her eyes, and tears only made her angrier. She wasn't some lovesick girl …

She felt Katara's footsteps as they walked towards each other from opposite directions. "Toph? What's wrong?

Toph's voice was low, stern, and choked. "Don't talk to me, Katara."

"What's the matter? Is there anything I can do—"

"You being nice will just make it worse." She pushed Katara out of the way and ran, not wanting anyone to see her cry.