Published January 15, 2014. Re-posted as its own chapter on June 20, 2014.
Words and Actions
Western novels reinforce the notion of an essential self by suggesting that the self which emerges from trying encounters with the world was in some sense there all along, as the basis for the actions which, from the perspective of readers, bring this self into being. The fundamental identity of characters emerges as the result of actions, of struggles with the world, but then this identity is posited as the basis, even the cause of those actions. ~ Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction
Zuko had found Aang sulking on one of the porches overlooking the beach. It was probably the most private place they would find in the theater.
"Aang?" It was the first time Zuko ever addressed the boy by name. "Can I talk to you?"
"I'm not in a good mood," Aang said flatly, without turning around.
"It's important," Zuko pleaded. He waited for a beat, and then said, "It's about Katara."
Now Aang turned to look at him fully, with a withered expression. "Don't tell me … You still like her?"
"Yes. I do."
He didn't seem entirely surprised, nor angry, nor annoyed. "Okay … so what?"
"So, I don't know what to do about it!" Zuko exclaimed, sounding like his usual frustrated self.
Aang looked incredulous now. "And you want me to give you dating advice?"
"Just because you're Katara's best friend … and I already kind of asked Sokka, and I don't want to bother him about it again …"
Aang folded his arms, raising an eyebrow at Zuko. "You realize I'm the least experienced guy in the group, right?"
"Technically you're also the oldest, and you have the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes and all that." Aang scowled, turning his head away. Zuko sighed, and tried one more time. "Aang, I'm asking you as a friend."
He could sense Aang softening slightly at that. It was the first time either of them had acknowledged the fact that they were not only allies but actual friends. Finally, Aang sighed. "Okay. I'll try to help, but you have to talk openly to me. I never totally got what's between you guys."
"Fair enough." Zuko folded his arms and rested them on the wooden railing. Aang hoisted himself up so he was sitting on the railing, facing Zuko as best he could.
"I've been on dates with other girls, and I've known Mai and Ty Lee since we were little … but I never connected with them the way I did with Katara. She was my first real friend."
Aang took off his hat long enough to scratch his head. "You're … sure you aren't just remembering past feelings?"
"No. This is different. What I felt back then—it was like a glimpse of the future, something I couldn't even imagine. But now, it's possible for that future to be a reality. I've never known anyone else so complex and amazing and—wonderful."
Aang couldn't doubt it when he heard the reverence in Zuko's tone. "So what's the problem?"
"The problem is, I don't know where we might go from here. If I try out a romantic relationship, it could just bring us someplace worse. And with everything going on, having a—a girlfriend would make things more complicated, and none of us needs that now. But I don't want this hanging over my head, or hers, in the end …"
"Are you scared?"
"I—" Zuko's instinct was to protest, but then he realized that fear was a part of what was holding him back. "Yeah. I am."
"Why? What are you scared of?"
"Besides the big stuff, like dying in battle?" They both cringed when he said that. But Zuko admitted, "That she might not feel that way for me … or that saying so might ruin our friendship now. There's a kind of … respect, I guess, in keeping a distance. I don't mean just chastity, I mean … the way we interact and talk to each other. I don't want to end up destroying that respect."
"You mean, being able to talk like normal friends? I get that." It was one of his reasons for not coming out about his feelings for Toph.
"We struggled so much just to get to where we are now. We're finally stable. We like and respect each other, and we don't feel guilty about it. But now that she likes me as a friend … I want her to love me too." Zuko sighed. "Maybe Mai was right, and I'm just not capable of being satisfied."
"I don't think so. You're just afraid of losing what you already have. At least you appreciate it now."
Zuko wanted to say It's not enough, but that sounded selfish, even childish.
"So you could leave things as they are, or tell her how you feel and see how it plays out."
Zuko considered this. "I guess … I'd rather confront my feelings now, than have them haunting me for the rest of my life."
"But it's not just your feelings that are involved. You need to find out how Katara feels about you. If you care about her, then you need to let her know—the sooner, the better." Aang looked off to the side. "I used to like her, but I made the mistake of not telling her."
"Really?" Zuko was surprised. He had felt some jealousy in the past, knowing that Katara had chosen to be with Aang instead of him, but he hadn't been aware of any romantic feelings between them.
"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 and help me. And she's so good and fun—how could I live with her and not have feelings for her?" Zuko's frown deepened, hearing Aang praise Katara—he agreed and sympathized with what he was saying, but he didn't like thinking about Aang being with the girl he loved. But then Aang finished, "I let her go when I realized she had her heart set on you."
"Really? But afterwards …"
"I could tell she still liked you that way. She just tried not to let that get in her way. And then, I met someone else who made me feel … even more than I'd felt with Katara."
Zuko blinked. "Who?"
Aang flushed pink as he muttered a single syllable. Zuko furrowed his eyebrow, and made a guess. "Toph?"
"Huh. I wouldn't have guessed you were a couple."
"… That's because we're not. Not really."
"Why is that?"
Aang laughed a little, though he wasn't really happy. "Where do I begin? Actually, the question is how would I begin? She's not exactly the romantic type."
"So, have you ever talked to her about your feelings?"
"No … but I think she might feel the same way about me."
"Then why don't you—" Zuko cut himself off. "Never mind. Thanks for listening, Aang." He clapped his student on the back and then walked away purposefully.
Zuko went back to the group's box, only to find it empty. He had to track down Sokka and Suki, who apparently had gone backstage for a while, and seen Katara going outside. Zuko went back to the entrance, wondering if he'd have to comb the beach for her—but he stopped short. She was standing at the end of the long porch, her back to him. There she was, once more contemplating the moon and ocean, standing alone as though waiting for someone to join her. It felt like déjà vu.
"Go to her."
"And do what?"
"Talk to her."
"What am I supposed to tell her?"
"The truth. Let her know how you feel."
"Easier said than done, Uncle."
Zuko knew it was probably selfish to pursue a love interest when they should be focused on preparing for their final battle. He knew it was not the right time; but he knew, too, that it might be the only time.
They both needed certainty, for better or for worse.
He walked over to her, making a reasonable amount of noise on the wooden floorboards so she was aware of him coming. Katara turned and saw him approach, pulling his hood back. "Hey," he greeted her.
"Hey," she returned.
"Are you okay?" Zuko asked.
"Sure. I—why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know. You're by yourself …"
"Well, for a while I was looking for everyone else. Actually, I passed Toph just a few minutes ago, and she seemed pretty upset, but she didn't want to talk about it."
"Well, I think Aang was going to talk to her now. I'm sure she'll be alright."
Katara looked sideways at him. "How about you? Are you okay? You seemed pretty down watching the Ba Sing Se episode," she said sympathetically.
"Yeah. I was. Guess I still am." Zuko turned and leaned his folded arms on the wooden railing. "One of the last things I said to my father was that Iroh was more of a father to me than he'd ever been. Ever since Lu Ten died … and especially since I was banished … my uncle's treated me like his own son. He taught me so much. And I repaid him with a knife in his back. I hoped to make it up to him by freeing him after the eclipse. But you know that didn't work out."
He heard Katara step closer, and felt her hand on his shoulder. "You'll see him again. I know it."
"And if I do? Can a verbal apology even cover that kind of thing?" It hadn't been enough for her.
"You're already doing a lot to make up for it," Katara pointed out. "I mean, you're helping us. That's what he wanted for you."
Zuko was silent for a moment, before he spoke again, his words hesitant and careful. "Uncle Iroh was the first person who tried to help me … but you were the second," he said, glancing at Katara.
She reacted slowly, taking her hand away, her expression cautious. "How do you mean?"
Zuko turned to look at her directly. "Where do I begin? You used waterbending to keep the ship steady during the storm. You offered me advice alongside my uncle. You healed me when I burned myself trying to make lightning. You offered me your friendship—"
"That was kind of unintentional," Katara said, hugging herself in embarrassment. "I was just trying to be nice, because Iroh suggested it."
"You were intentional when you offered to go with Zhao to protect my track record. Katara, the last person to do something that drastic for my sake was my mother."
"It didn't even work," Katara muttered. "Zhao still had it in for you, until the very end. And you were branded a traitor for helping the Water Tribe."
Zuko went on doggedly. "You healed my uncle, even after I yelled and shot fire at you. You should have been scared of me—both then, and a million times before—but you kept coming back and helping me. And you still are."
There it was again, that wary confusion in her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Today, you offered to help me find my mother. That day Azula attacked the Air Temple, you caught me when I fell off the airship. And after we saw Yon Rha … you listened while I told you my story. And you offered your friendship again. And that's when I realized …" He hesitated, his old self-doubt coming back to him. Was I love you too forward, even now? Would she believe him?
At the silence, Katara held up a hand, to his slight dismay. "Zuko, stop. I know where you're going with this, but I—"
"Please, just hear me out," Zuko begged, taking a step closer. "We've never actually been able to talk about this. I don't want to put you on the spot, but I … I need to get this off my chest. Because I may not have another chance."
Katara looked at him for a long moment, and then nodded in assent. "Okay. But don't just tell me about all the ways we're indebted to each other. Because real relationships—friendship and love—aren't about owing; they're about giving, without any thought for yourself. And I think I know how you felt about me in the past. I need to know how you feel about me now."
Zuko blinked at her. "You need to know?" Katara nodded. Zuko wondered if she was having the same dilemma, not knowing how he felt toward her. Maybe they both needed to be more clear. "Alright, then, forget what's already happened. Forget whatever we've done to help or hurt each other. Here's what I know about you now." He took a breath before he began, looking at her with long-stifled passion. "You are the most kind, powerful, generous, beautiful, tenacious girl I know. I admire everything about you—what you do, what you are, what you want. And I know what you want for the world. So what I need to know … is what you want for yourself."
Katara understood. He wanted to know if she loved him with her thoughts and feelings, and whether she could love him with her actions too. She smiled then. "It's not as complicated as you think. I feel the same way."
She said it so simply, so calmly, that it took a moment for Zuko to recognize it as what he had been hoping she would say. "You do?" Katara nodded. Zuko was amazed, and more than a little incredulous. "Can … can you still love me? After everything I've done?"
"I can," she confirmed, and then admitted, "and I do."
Was he understanding her correctly? Had she just admitted that she loved him? "I didn't think this was possible …"
"Why? Because we've always been at odds?"
"Not just that, but because … well, just recently … you hated me."
"I never hated you," she said. Zuko looked genuinely surprised by this. Katara blushed, looking down and hugging herself. "At least, it was never as simple as feeling hatred for you. What I really hated was … not knowing who you were. Thinking that I didn't know you at all. But now I do."
"So who am I?"
She didn't respond right away. Instead, she unfolded her arms, reached up and touched his scar. Zuko had to remind himself to breathe; the gesture brought him back to the last time she'd touched that spot, when they were in the catacombs. He wondered if they had ever really left that crossroads.
"I know you don't care for it," Katara said, "but this scar says a lot about who you are. You are ethical, idealistic, noble, earnest, passionate, intense, and—I might as well say it—honorable. You're powerful in more ways than you know, and you want to use your power for good. You make mistakes and try to fix them. And you never, ever give up on what's right and worthwhile."
"I guess that's another thing we have in common," he murmured, putting his own hand over hers. They were touching, already standing close—and then somehow they were kissing.
Zuko had the feeling that this was the moment he'd been hoping for, without realizing it, for the past several weeks. Last night had been only part of it. He had needed that reconciliation. But he had also wanted this union.
The strangest thing about it was how easy, how normal it felt.
It was Zuko who pulled away first, still keeping his hands cupped around her face. "Are you sure?"
She answered without any hesitation or doubt. "I'm sure."
"I don't mean sure of your feelings; I mean—are you sure you want to be with me that way?" He let one of his hands fall down from her face and rest on her bare shoulder. "I've spent so long believing we can't be together that … I'm not sure I know how to be with you, if we were a couple." He knew how to harbor feelings, how to push them down on one's list of priorities. Did he even know how to be a good partner, or whatever he was suggesting he become? The words "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" seemed almost childish, too casual for something as serious and profound as this. The word "lovers" had an illicit connotation and seemed to suggest insincerity, a more animal desire. Either label felt like an objectification of their feelings, of each other.
"Listen." Katara took his hand in both of hers, looking at him earnestly. "Ever since I was on your ship, all we've done is come up with reasons why we shouldn't be together. Now, all those things don't matter. Nothing stands in our way now," she almost whispered, smiling with hushed excitement. "We're together, we're on the same side, we have time, and we're in the perfect place to give us a chance."
Zuko realized she was right. "Then … we should make the most of the time we have here," he decided, thinking aloud.
"I'd like that … spending time with you."
He could see opening up a whole world of possibility, which he had always been afraid of looking into. Could he overcome that fear—now, or in the future? He couldn't even be sure if both of them would have a future … much less one that they could share. But the hope that they could …
Katara looked at him curiously. "Are you crying?"
He touched his right eye, and found that there were tears coming out of it. "I just …" Zuko shook his head. "I've never been so … so pleasantly surprised." The idea—the fact—that she not only forgave him, accepted him, and respected him, but loved him as well, made him happy in a way he'd never felt before. It was overwhelming.
Katara grinned and hugged him around the middle. Zuko put his arms around her, holding her against him. "Thank you," he murmured. He told himself it was the last time he would voice his gratitude; from now on, he would show it rather than say it.
Am I a hypocrite?
That was all Aang could wonder, after advising Zuko to make his feelings known, when he couldn't do the same for the girl he loved. But wasn't his more excusable, considering how young he and Toph were? He couldn't know for sure.
But what if the same thing that had happened with Katara played out with Toph? What if he waited too long, and she found someone else, or simply lost any interest she had in him? What if he lost her? There were various ways that could happen. She could quite possibly leave him for good after the war was over. Not that they would never see each other again—their friendship was stronger than that—but he didn't think he could be totally happy without her.
With this in mind, Aang decided he wouldn't talk about feelings yet. He would just ask her what she thought she would do after they won the war. That would be easy to segue into, after talking about this play and the way it summed up their shared pasts.
Aang steeled himself, as though walking into an arena—just as he had when he first met Toph. Then he ducked back into the group's box. Suki and Sokka had returned with their snacks. Toph was sitting by herself on the frontmost bench. "Toph? Can we talk?"
"No, I don't want to talk," Toph said shortly.
"Well—I'm afraid we might not get another chance."
"Fine, then talk yourself. I don't have to answer."
"Can we take this outside?"
Toph raised her eyebrows, thinking it sounded like he wanted to fight, though that probably wasn't at all what he wanted. It might be satisfying on her part, though.
She followed him out into the hall, but there were other people milling about, so he went further, back to the porch where she had heard him with Zuko.
He knew he'd had a plan but couldn't remember how it began. "I'm not really sure how to start …"
"What, did you not cover everything with Zuko? Do you need a girl's perspective now? I guess that's all I am, someone to practice with."
Aang blinked at her, thoroughly confused. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about Katara, and the fact that she's innocently in the dark. Why don't you talk to her instead of about her?"
"I heard you talking to Zuko about her just now."
Aang's eyes widened, and for a moment he panicked. "What? How much did you hear?"
"You said you had feelings for her," Toph accused.
Of all the things she could have heard … "I was saying that I used to! And if you'd kept listening, you would have heard me say I gave up on her."
Toph's hands were balled into fists, her feet planted firmly against the wood floor. It was like their first earthbending lesson, except now she wasn't scolding him, she was standing her own ground to confront him. "You think I don't notice these things? I may be blind, but I still see things! I see the way you and Katara get along. I meant what I said at the invasion, and you didn't deny it!"
"Well, I can't deny that Katara's a great friend, but that's as far as it goes!"
"You kissed my cheek before you left to fight that day. Was that some kind of consolation? An apology?"
"I told you it was a good-bye!" Aang burst out. "But actually, what I wanted that day was—" He broke off.
"What? Go on," Toph egged on.
"I wanted to give you a real kiss. Because I knew I might not make it back, and—and I wanted you to know that I like you as more than a friend."
That took her aback. Toph's anger ebbed, even as her mind swirled in confusion. "You did? You do?"
"Why didn't you just say so?"
"Probably the same reason you wouldn't—I didn't know how to talk about it."
"So … why didn't you kiss me, if you wanted to?" Toph could hardly get the words out.
"Um … you were throwing up in the submarine. I didn't think you'd be in the mood."
Toph made a face, remembering. "Okay, fair enough."
Aang took off the hat covering his arrow, agitatedly crushing it in his hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't come out here to argue with you. I didn't even plan to talk about feelings."
"Then what did you want to talk about?"
Aang took a breath. "I wanted to ask―well, actually I already asked about it, but this time I wanted to suggest―"
"Just spit it out!"
"Will you stay with me after the war's over?"
This brought a surprised frown to Toph's face. Aang rambled on, "I don't know how you feel about me, or about being with me. But even when my training's done, and even when we don't have an enemy to fight … I don't want to lose you."
Toph's face hardened. He really thought she would leave him that easily? "Do you know why I ran away from home?"
Aang blinked. "Well … your parents were overprotective, and you wanted the freedom to be yourself."
Toph paused. "Okay, yeah. But that was only part of it."
"Then … you wanted to help end the war?"
"Oh, quit acting so modest," Toph said impatiently, sounding just as snappy as usual. "I left for you, Aang. And not because you're the Avatar, or because you needed my help. I went with you because you were my first friend. I didn't want to lose you, either. And I don't want to lose you now."
Aang looked at her, trying to understand what was going on in her unpredictable mind, fighting his own frustration and confusion. "Okay, back up," Aang said. "Let's get some things straight. Do you like me as more than a friend?"
"I don't know."
She couldn't see him grin, but she heard his voice change to a sing-song tone. "I can tell you're lying."
Toph's eyes widened. "You can?" She thought he couldn't feel vibrations as acutely as she could, such as heartbeat and breathing … then Toph realized that she had just admitted that she was lying.
"I knew it!" Aang exclaimed.
"Okay, fine. Yes. I like you. Actually, I wouldn't be lying if I said 'I love you'. I don't know how much, and I don't know that we're meant for each other—"
"That's just it, Toph. I think we were meant to find each other. That's why I saw you in the Swamp, and how I knew what to look for in a teacher. I've had a crush on you ever since that first vision."
"You mean you fell in love with me before you even met me? That's deep, Aang, real deep."
"I'm not trying to be sappy, Toph. I just knew you'd be someone special," he reasoned. "And you are—to me more than to anyone else."
Toph could feel herself blushing. Her whole body was hot, and her heart felt like a live animal thumping in her chest. "So what happens now?" she said quietly.
Aang looked at her for a long moment. He thought about doing what he'd said he wanted to do in the past—he could tell she was thinking of the same thing, but he didn't know if she was hoping or simply anticipating it.
"Can I kiss you?"
She blinked in surprise. She hadn't expected him to ask. Was that standard procedure before kissing? Or was he just preparing her, since she couldn't see his face?
"I've never kissed anyone before," Toph said softy.
"Do you want to?"
"I don't know," she said. She felt embarrassed, not wanting to be too eager or too evasive. "Maybe." That wasn't helpful. "… Yes."
Aang hooked his finger under her chin, gently tilting her face upward. "I'm going to close my eyes," he said. "So I'll just see as much as you do."
Toph knew this could be the moment when everything changed. Did she want this? What if things were never the same with Aang?
No, that was impossible. Because she had been drawn to him from the very beginning. They'd always had a unique kinship.
Aang's lips pressed down gently on hers. Toph leaned in too, and grasped the fabric of his shirt, pulling him as close as she could. Aang kept his hands on her shoulders to steady himself.
Toph had never felt a person this way before. She'd touched his lips with her fingers, once, and felt his heart beat and his scars, but this … she didn't want to put words to it, because that would make it sound weirder in her objective mind. So instead of thinking, she continued to feel.
When his lips broke away from hers, he rested his forehead against the crown of her head. They were both breathing quietly. "What do you think?"
"Well, it wasn't gross."
"I thought it was nice," Aang said frankly.
Toph laughed, and her smile lit up her whole face—the way it had when Aang first saw her in the Foggy Swamp. "We're both full of surprises."
"That's true." Both of them had had to contend with others' expectations of them, and come to terms with how much of those expectations were true.
Toph giggled. "I feel like a girl."
"You are a girl. Even if your actor is a boy."
Toph couldn't feel vibrations through the wooden building, and her mind was so fuzzy that she didn't hear two people turning the corner and stopping to stare at them in complete disbelief.
Startled, Toph and Aang broke away at the sound of Katara's stunned voice. Toph blushed deep red. Aang looked startled as he stared back at Zuko and Katara, who looked utterly dumbfounded.
"What—Toph—how—" Katara said haltingly, at a loss for words.
"Didn't you see us coming?" Zuko broke in, surprised but coherent.
"No," Toph said, sounding surprised with herself.
"Well … um … I wanted to ask if you were okay," Katara said awkwardly. "But I guess you are."
Aang blushed furiously.
"We're fine here," Toph said evenly. "And how are you two doing tonight?"
"Oh, everything's—great for us."
Aang blinked, and then raised his eyebrows at Katara and Zuko. Toph looked similarly knowing, and would have been amused if she weren't in almost the same position.
"We should probably go back to the box," Zuko murmured.
"Right. We'll see you there." Aang was still holding Toph's hand as they left.
There was a moment of silence before Zuko spoke to Katara. "Is there any privacy between people in this group?"
Katara's smile was sympathetic, almost indulgent. "I'm happy for them. And for us."
"I guess Lo and Li were right—again," Zuko said, smiling. "Ember Island really does bring people together. When I came here a month ago, I got to know Ty Lee and Mai better. When we arrived here, you and I finally made up. And tonight, I had a heart-to-heart with Aang, and Aang and Toph kissed." He paused, looking sideways at Katara.
"And now that you're on our side, I don't feel at all guilty about this." Katara put her hand on his shoulder, gently making him turn to face her, and kissed him. Zuko's amber eyes widened, but then he relaxed and kissed Katara back. She melted into him, like fire melting an ice cube.
After a moment Katara cupped Zuko's scarred face in her hands, and he put one arm around her. Their movements seemed to reflect the nature of their elements: Zuko was fiery and passionate; Katara's motions were fluid and smooth. Somehow they managed to work harmoniously. It felt deeply right.
Zuko realized that this was the first time he had kissed Katara without feeling hesitance or guilt. Now he was free to love her.
Finally they broke apart, only to hug each other tightly. "I missed you," Katara whispered, resting her head on Zuko's shoulder.
Zuko stroked her hair. "I missed you too. Even after I joined the group, I missed you."
"I'm sorry I was so … you know …" How could she describe her behavior toward him when he joined the group? She had threatened to kill him, after all. "Harsh. Icy. Hostile."
"I guess I deserved that," Zuko murmured. "Don't worry about it."
They stood in silence for a moment, just holding each other. Then Zuko said, "We really should go inside. They'll be wondering where we are."
They released each other reluctantly, but they held on to each other's hands. Katara's eyes shone as brightly as the innumerable stars in the sky. It was a beautiful summer night. The moon and the torches on the beach threw light onto the waves rolling on the shore. As they went in, Katara cast a glance back at the moon, knowing that Yue was probably smiling down on them.
Everyone except for Sokka and Suki missed the first half of the final act, but no one minded. "Where've you guys been?" Sokka asked, but didn't wait to hear before filling them in on what they had missed. His own mood improved significantly when the actor portraying him took his advice and ad-libbed some jokes. "Hey Toph, would you say you and Aang have a rocky relationship?"
Sokka made some wordless joyful sounds, gesturing to all of them. Toph laughed at the irony, and Aang tried to make his chortle seem humorous rather than nervous.
Katara smiled at him Zuko during the part when he joined Team Avatar. He was smiling too, just slightly, but his eyes were fixed on the stage. No one could see them holding hands.
The sweetness was rudely interrupted by the play's shocking and unpleasant conclusion. Sozin's Comet came, and Azula and Ozai were shown killing off Zuko and Aang respectively. The real Zuko was shocked, not only at seeing his own death, but also at hearing the audience applaud this. Just months ago a crowd had cheered for his return, and now they were cheering for his demise—all their regard based on the whims of the Fire Lord and his propaganda-induced culture. Toph wanted to punch something when she heard the crowd cheering over Aang's death. Katara and Aang actually felt nauseous, watching fake flames engulf the stage as Ozai proclaimed, "The world—is—mine!"
The audience below them gave a standing ovation, while the six friends sat in shock.
It was Toph who got up first. "Let's ditch this place."
They left the building silently, not feeling quite capable of discussing it until they were walking on the beach again. They now were more or less unanimous in their distaste for it, though Sokka maintained that the special effects were decent.
"I did say that the players were bad," Zuko reminded them. "And I was right about the play." He paused, and sounded thoughtful when he spoke again. But—I can't say I regret coming tonight."
Toph smiled satisfactorily. "Well, I know one thing positive came out of this. Two things, actually."
Aang, Katara and Zuko stopped in their tracks. "Toph—" Katara started.
"Come on, Sokka and Suki are the only ones who don't know."
"What?" the warriors said together.
"First, Katara and Zuko are back together!"
Sokka was taken aback. "What? Seriously?" He looked to his sister, who blushed and nodded, her smile a little sheepish. "That's … great." Sokka smiled, and the others could not tell whether it was forced.
Zuko ran a hand through his hair. "Thanks a lot, Toph," he said, shooting her an annoyed look that she couldn't see.
"You're welcome," she said smugly. "And secondly—"
"Toph finally admitted how she feels about me," Aang finished for her.
Now Sokka stopped short. "Say what?"
Katara laughed at her brother's utter shock. "Come on, Sokka. I've suspected something for a while now. Don't tell me you couldn't see it."
"I thought that was a strong friendship!" Sokka said. "Like me and Toph, or you and Aang! And aren't you guys kind of young?"
"We're thirteen now," Aang said. "We're teenagers, just like the rest of you!"
"Crazy, hormone-filled, reckless," Zuko said under his breath.
"You know it!" Toph gave him a shove, and then turned to Aang. "Race you to the dock!" With that she took off running, kicking up an unnatural amount of sand at the them—a sign that her sandbending was improving.
"I'm in!" Sokka said.
"Hey, she was challenging me!" Aang exclaimed, joining them.
Katara exchanged a glance with Zuko. "Want to race?"
Zuko smiled crookedly. "I don't know … competition between us doesn't usually end well …"
"Your loss!" Katara called out before taking off after the others.
"Hey!" Zuko started after them too.
The six of them raced down the beach, kicking sand up behind them, splashing when they crossed the sea strand, laughing and shouting to each other. They were acting crazy, like the teenagers they all were.
"The end of the dock is the finish line!" Toph shouted, far ahead of the others.
"Okay!" Aang smiled complaisantly; then he ran so fast—as only an airbender could—that Toph couldn't register his footsteps in the sand, and the others lost sight of him in the darkness. He stood at the end of the dock a mere minute later.
Toph and Sokka ran neck-in-neck as they reached the old, disintegrating pier; they were both trying to push each other out of the way, and Sokka, as the taller one, managed to push Toph behind him. She lost her balance, and then fell with a cry off the dock and into the water.
"Toph!" Aang's first reaction was slight panic. But then Toph resurfaced, her arms were pushing her forward, and her head staying up—and then he realized, she was moving on her own.
"Look! I'm swimming!" She had to spit water out of her mouth as she spoke.
Aang laughed triumphantly. "She's doing it! Toph can swim!"
"Woo-hoo!" The older kids cheered from the beach.
Katara was distracted enough that Zuko caught up to her, locking her in his arms and spinning her. "Ha! I've captured you!"
"Oh, have mercy!" Katara laughed. They slowed to a stop, Zuko hugging her from behind, both of them looking out at the beach.
"I've never had so much fun before," Zuko said. He hadn't stopped smiling.
"Is this what summer's like for normal kids?" Katara wondered. He knew what she was referring to: the feeling of being suspended in time, as though infinity lay before you, and yet was ready to disappear in an instant.
"No," Suki said, speaking from sixteen years of experience outside the war. "This is much better."
They spent a long time on the beach before they were tired enough to go back to the beach house. "See, even thought play stank, we salvaged some fun tonight," Sokka said, maintaining a positive attitude. He wasn't the only one walking with his arm over his girlfriend's shoulder; Zuko had his arm resting lightly on Katara's shoulders. Even Aang and Toph walked hand-in-hand.
"Everything's going to be different now," Zuko said as he looked down the beach.
"Yeah," Katara said. "But I think things are going to change for the better."
Everyone had already picked out sleeping spots: Toph set up her earth tent in the courtyard, Katara and Suki shared an old bedroom, while the boys shared another.
Aang knelt next to Toph's earth tent. "So, um … can we spend some time training together tomorrow?"
"Sure. I'll trade you a sparring session for a swim practice."
Aang grinned. "Fair enough. G'night, Toph."
"G'night Twink … Aang."
"You can still call me Twinkle Toes if you want."
Zuko and Katara stopped outside the girls' bedroom. Zuko spoke, staving off a potentially awkward goodnight. "I'll be training Aang during the middle of each day, when the sun is highest, but we could spend the mornings and evenings together."
"That sounds great," she said, smiling sincerely.
Zuko smiled too, and kissed her forehead softly before heading to his room. Katara went into her bedroom, feeling tired yet exhilarated. She still had that vividly unreal feeling of summer and love. She flopped down backwards onto her sleeping bag, smiling and staring up at the cobwebbed ceiling.
Can this possibly be real?
Don't ask. Just enjoy it.
Music: "When Words Fail" from Shrek: The Musical, "Love Will Find a Way" from The Lion King II: Simba's Pride
Artwork: "because I know you believe it" by venetia-the-hedgehog, "A Stolen Moment" by Abayomi on DeviantArt, "Taang - Can I Kiss You?" by GreenifyME