Toph quickly recovered from the shock of having Aang stride into her sitting room unannounced. It was a rare moment when she was taken off guard but, considering how scattered she had been since their last conversation, Toph wasn't surprised that his arrival had slipped past her. Besides that, it was late evening and she was relaxed, already in her pajamas and spending quality time with her kid. It wasn't as if she had been expecting visitors anyway. Yet, in spite of her sedate mood, Toph wasn't at all overjoyed by Aang's unexpected visit because she suspected it meant that all she had told him earlier that morning had gone in one ear and out the other.
Thoroughly aggravated with him, she tabled her mini-earthbending lesson with Lin and, after brushing a kiss across the top of her daughter's head and ensuring that Lin was situated with enough toys to keep her occupied, rose to her feet to address Aang. "What are you doing here?" she demanded flatly.
"I came to tell you 'yes.'"
"Yes to what?"
"Yes to your question," Aang clarified, "You asked me before if I could leave Katara in the past and I'm giving you the answer. Yes, Toph, I can leave her in the past…and I have."
"And you made up your mind about that in less than twelve hours?" Toph snorted sarcastically, "Yeah, why ever would I doubt that you were being sincere right now, Aang?"
"This isn't a spur of the moment thing, Toph. It's taken me some time, but I've been working on it all along. A little patience and understanding from you would be nice."
The levity in his tone didn't lessen Toph's tension at all. "Really? I must have missed all that with all the weeping and freak-outs going on," she deadpanned. And then, just as abruptly as her sassy bravado manifested, it dissipated, leaving her feeling weary and dejected. She slumped forward with a heavy sigh. "Aang, I don't want to do this again. Do yourself a favor and me as well and let this go. You can't give me what I want and I can't be who you want. Let's just call time of death on this thing right now."
Aang had expected such a reaction from her. Therefore, he steeled himself against the pointed candor of her words, determined to put her on the defensive. He blinked at her in exaggerated dismay. "Wow. I never figured you'd be the type to give up on something so easily. What happened to the girl who taught me to be stubborn and unmovable like a rock?"
"Way to throw my own words back in my face," she muttered, "That's great."
"Can I help it if you're a 'do as I say not do as I do' type of person?"
Her fists clenched at her sides and her jaw clenched. Aang prepared himself for the wallop he knew was coming but, at the last second, Toph pulled back. "You're trying to get me riled up on purpose," she surmised with some surprise, "Do you have a death wish?"
"Now why would I do that?" Aang asked with phony, wide-eyed innocence.
"I don't know, Aang. Why would you?"
"Maybe because I'd rather have you fight with me than to give up on us completely," he said softly.
Toph expelled a low groan of frustration, her flinty exterior crumbling a bit. "Would you stop it? Don't you know we're doomed?"
"I don't believe that and neither do you. You're just scared right now."
"You're right!" she cried sharply, "I am scared! And you know what, Aang? I hate it! I used to know where I stood with you and now I don't! Everything is upside down! I hate feeling scared and insecure and jealous all the time and I don't want to feel like this anymore! I'm through!"
"Do you think I like feeling this way?" he retorted, "I have news for you, it's not a stroll in the park for me either! These last few months have been some of the best and worst of my life! But guess what, Toph? That's a part of falling in love. It's trial and error, pleasure and pain."
"Well, maybe I'm not interested in falling in love," she mumbled in reply.
Aang almost smiled. "Toph, if we could decide whether or not we wanted to fall in love, I seriously doubt either of us would be standing here having this discussion right now. That's not how it works. I can't turn off my feelings for you and I don't think you can turn off your feelings for me."
Toph crumbled a little more. "I wish I could," she muttered unhappily, "It would hurt a lot less."
"Unfortunately, I can't promise you that it will ever stop hurting…not completely anyway," Aang said, "I'm going to screw up, Toph…a lot. I'm going to do things to make you angry and I might even do things that break your heart. I'm not perfect."
"Well, that's encouraging. Only not."
"It goes both ways, Toph," he told her, "You're probably going to screw up just as much. In fact, I know you will. The only way we're going to make this truly work is if we're willing to talk to each other and be honest."
She recoiled with a scowl. "So, I can look forward to both of us causing each other unspeakable pain then and then opening a vein about it later?" she queried sardonically, "Great. And I should be eager to jump into this why exactly?"
"Because I could make you really happy," he promised her softly, "…if you let me."
The pleading undertone in his words shattered the remainder of Toph's defenses, leaving her vulnerable and emotionally naked before him. "Why are you doing this to me, Aang?" she lamented in a small tone.
"I already told you why. I love you, Toph. I'm going to keep saying it until you believe me."
Toph grunted. "I'm picking up on that. It's really starting to get on my nerves."
Far from being put off by that less than enthused mutter, Aang was strangely encouraged by her disgruntled retort. "I owe you an apology, Toph."
A curious silence fell around them. Even Lin's childish chatter seemed to fade away in the background. "What are you apologizing for?" Toph asked softly.
"I've made so many mistakes with you. I never meant to make you feel as if you were second to Katara or make you feel like I was trying to hide you away," he said, "I've been dealing with a lot of confusion lately and I didn't really know how to express that or talk to you about it."
Toph circled her bare toe against her floor. "I didn't exactly make it easy for you to talk," she admitted in a small tone, "I'm sure you've already figured out that I'm not all that big on feelings and communication and all that crap. I never really let you express what was on your mind and I was too afraid to tell you what I was thinking."
"There's nothing else to be afraid of. I guess I don't have any more secrets from you. You know how I feel, Aang. You know everything."
"Does that mean you're ready to hear how I feel now?" he wondered softly.
She wasn't completely sure that she was, but Toph shrugged nonetheless. "Go ahead."
"You were right when you said that there's a part of me that I keep separate from you," he confessed, "But, I keep it separate from everyone. I'm very protective of what I feel for Katara and what we had together. But what you don't seem to understand is that I'm equally protective of what I feel for you.
"It's not a contest between you and Katara, Toph," he continued, slowly closing the distance between them as he spoke, "I love you both, in different ways and for different reasons, but the one thing that you do have in common is that you both taught me about what it means to love someone." When he stood only a foot or so away from her, he lifted his hand to tenderly brush his knuckles across her cheek. "Katara inspired me to love with everything I have and you made me believe in it again," he went on softly, "Both of you mean everything to me, but you're the one I choose to be with, Toph."
"Because she's not here," Toph pointed out.
He cradled her face in his hands. "Why does that even matter anymore?" he challenged her quietly, "You're right. We probably wouldn't be standing here together right now if Katara hadn't died, but she did die, Toph. She's gone and we're not. I didn't ask for it. I didn't want it, but it is what it is now. I could easily spend the rest of my life chasing her spirit and trying to undo what's already been done, but I don't want to do that. I'm not going to do that. I'd rather be here with you."
She whispered his name in a mournful sigh, leaning into his body weakly. "I don't want you to look back one day and feel like you wasted your time. I don't want you to regret being with me."
Aang ducked his head to nuzzle against her temple. "That's not going to happen. I'm offering you my heart, Toph. It's yours for the taking…if you still want it."
Toph choked out a teary laugh. "Is that the best you could do? That has to be the cheesiest thing anyone has ever said to me."
"Don't mock me. I'm being completely sincere right now," Aang whispered with a growing smile, "So, what do you say, Toph? Do you want to be with me or not?"
Toph thought for a moment and then declared rather implacably, "I'm not going to coddle you."
Aang swallowed a stunned laugh. "Okay."
"Or cook for you."
He swiped his brow in relief. "Thank goodness for that."
She narrowed her eyes in warning, but continued. "I'm also no good at washing clothes. So, I won't be doing any of that either. Basically all housework is out."
"Also, I'm sure you're aware that communication is difficult for me. I'm not very good at it, but I'm willing to try to be more open and honest…for you."
"I appreciate that."
"But I'm not a very warm and fuzzy person, so you'll need to be patient with me while I get the hang of this whole sharing and feeling bit, okay?"
"You're not warm and fuzzy? That's a shocker." That last bit of sarcasm earned him a pinch to the mid-section. He danced out of her reach with a laughing yelp. "Is there anything else?"
"There is one more thing. I don't think it's a problem but it may be a deal breaker for you." She paused to take a dramatic breath. "I may or may not snore."
"Let me confirm that you do," Aang replied dryly, "and I can live with it."
Toph's mouth turned up in a small smile. "Then I guess I can live with you."
Aang's features brightened with an excited smile. "So you're telling me yes?"
She bobbed a happy nod. "I'm telling you yes."
Before she had even finished making the reply, Aang swept her up in his arms and pressed his mouth to hers in a grateful kiss. The instant he did so a raucous applause broke out from the entrance of the sitting room. Toph and Aang broke apart with sheepish blushes to discover they had an audience of about a dozen of Toph's servants gathered there. They all regarded Toph and Aang with expressions ranging from weepy sentimentality to genuine joy to outright amusement. Their mortification was only heightened when Lin joined in as well, clapping her hands together in uncontained glee. She toddled over to them, chortling, "I saw you! I saw you! You kissed my momma, Uncle Twink!"
Aang rolled Toph a woebegone look as he bent over to scoop the little girl into his arms. "You really need to stop calling me that. You're influencing her. I don't like it."
"I don't know, Uncle Twink," she teased, reaching around her daughter to grab a handful of his robes and pull him close for another kiss, "I think it's cute." Aang growled at her and Lin happily mimicked him, which inevitably provoked another growl. "Okay…okay…" Toph acquiesced against his lips, only to add with an impish smirk, "I'll consider it." Yet another round of applause broke out as they melted into a second kiss, but this time Aang and Toph didn't acknowledge it at all.
An hour later, after the servants had been dismissed and Lin was down for the night, Aang and Toph retired to her bed for the evening. Unlike times past when they had come together in a frantic, impatient rush, this time the couple took their time exploring every naked inch of each other. They caressed one another with leisurely enjoyment, taking their precious time to kiss and caress every bit of each other's exposed skin. They twisted and arched together amid the tangled sheets, their mouths and hands gliding over one another with breathless urgency.
When they finally joined their bodies, Toph straddled over Aang and he penetrated her in gradual strokes, taking his time to savor the warmth and wetness of her. She wrapped her arms and legs around him tightly, rocking against him in a beating rhythm that had taken them weeks to perfect. Aang clenched his fingers into her hair, angling back her head to press kisses along her slender throat. They pressed their bodies closer with staccato moans of pure pleasure, gasping and rolling together, shifting and arching against one another with increasing fervor as they pounded towards release. They found fulfillment in tandem with one another, riding out the orgasmic wave of sensation until they both were left limp and panting and completely spent.
After it was over, they flopped back against the bed together in a damp tangle of arms and legs. Toph curled against Aang's side and rested her cheek on his chest, listening intently to the wild, thundering beat of his heart. Hovering somewhere between slumber and wakefulness, Aang absently twirled the loosened tendrils of Toph's hair around his index finger and occasionally laid them across his upper lip in a pseudo moustache. His unending silliness made her smile.
"Why does this feel like the first time we've ever done this?" she murmured aloud in thoughtful consideration.
"Maybe because we finally know what we want and what we are together," Aang considered sleepily, "Maybe that's why it feels different."
Her smile stretched against his bare skin. "So you know what you want now?"
"Technically, I've known for months. You're the one who needed convincing, not me."
She pinched his nipple in mock affront but he only rumbled a laugh. "So what exactly is it that you want, Aang?"
"You,"he answered without hesitation, hauling her closer, "All the time."
Her fingers drifted down flat surface of his abdomen towards his groin where he remained in a state of semi-arousal. "Hmm…I couldn't tell," she teased.
Aang smiled into her hair as she caressed him. "Get your mind out of the gutter. That's not all I want, you know."
"Well, what else is there?"
"I want you to live with me."
Toph's smile abruptly collapsed. Her fingers fell motionless. She forgot to breathe. In that moment, all teasing, sexual or otherwise, was forgotten. "What? You want me to what?"
"Are you going deaf too?" he laughed, "Blindness and hearing loss? That's going to suck. Although, you might nag me less that way." Toph propped herself onto her forearm and impatiently thumped her tiny fist against his abdomen. "Oomph…so violent…" Aang grunted.
Jaw set with menace, Toph raised her fist in threat once more. "Stop it. Were you being serious just now or are you messing with me?"
"I'm being serious. I think we should live together, Toph."
She sucked in a sharp breath. "When you say 'live together,' do you mean like what we had before or do you mean you actually want to live together like a real couple does?"
"I want to live together…like a real couple."
Toph swallowed thickly. "Well…um…how are the kids going to feel about that and, by kids, I specifically mean Kya? Last time I checked, I was on her top 10 most hated people list."
"She confused right now. She still loves you, Toph, and that comes straight from her mouth. She is still having a hard time with the idea of us, but I think she's prepared for the possibility of us living together. You know…since I told them all today that I'm in love with you," Aang replied softly, "After that, I think they're kind of expecting it."
The frank declaration left Toph trembling with such emotion that she feared she might actually burst into tears. She had been yearning this entire time for him to tell them and now that he had, Toph was virtually speechless. Her entire body felt like one, big throbbing nerve…raw and sensitive. Acrid emotion burned her throat. She knew she was going to cry and, because that prospect was so unacceptable to her, Toph tried to temper her impending loss of composure with a display of humor.
"Wow, Aang…next thing I know you'll be proposing marriage."
"That's not a bad idea. I actually wouldn't mind marrying you at all." Toph went rigid with disbelief at his reply, but just when she thought that he couldn't possibly shock her more, he added almost carelessly, "Who knows? Maybe we can have a couple of babies too…maybe more than a couple." Toph fell into a fit of choking, unaware that Aang was deliberately teasing her and struggling to contain his laughter. "Personally, I'd like to have four or five more."
"Four or five?" Toph sputtered incredulously, "Are you nuts?"
"Kidding," he chuckled, "I'm kidding."
Toph wilted against him. "Oh…you scared me for a minute. I was wondering how you even figured out I was pregnant in the first place."
Now it was Aang's turn to choke uncontrollably. He virtually knocked her aside as he bolted upright in stammering alarm. "What? You're what?"
"Kidding," she said smugly, "I'm kidding."
Aang deflated with a mixture of disappointment and relief. He fixed her with a narrowed glare, slowly settling back down against the bed. "You're not hilarious, Toph," he grumbled, "Not in the slightest."
She snuggled back into his arms with a wide, self-satisfied smile. "I think I'm quite hilarious, thank you very much," she quipped jovially, "But, for the record, I'm not totally opposed to having a baby with you. I might think about it."
More than mollified by that candid reply, Aang pressed a warm kiss to the nape of her neck. "Well, it can't be anytime in the next hour," he told her with a drowsy laugh, "I need a nap." He fully expected to be kicked for that comment and Toph did not disappoint him. He favored her with a mock scowl. "Has anyone ever told you that you're a mean, crabby woman with vicious tendencies?"
"Quite often, actually. I take it as a compliment."
"You would," he teased, snuggling closer as he closed his eyes in preparation for sleep, "Hmm…I think I like sharing a bed with you, Toph Beifong."
"Good. I'm glad one of us likes it," she wisecracked. That smart remark earned Toph a furtive pinch to her backside. She snapped her teeth at him. "Ooh, you're getting feisty. I like that."
"Whatever," he snorted around a broad yawn, "Go to sleep."
Still laughing, Toph's plan to drift off to sleep was waylaid when Aang whispered her name. Without ever opening her eyes, she mumbled a disgruntled, "What? Make up your mind. You just told me to go to sleep!"
"Are you happy right now?"
She dropped a smiling kiss to his forearm. "Yeah. I'm happy. I'm very happy. Are you happy, Aang?"
He lifted his head to nip against her bare shoulder before settling back against her with a sleepy snuffle. "Very happy. I love you, Toph."
As she listened to his breathing even and deepen as he drifted off to sleep, Toph shifted deeper into the crook Aang's body and whispered aloud for the first time, "I love you too, Aang." With a contented sigh, she closed her eyes and fit his arm more securely around her waist, enveloping herself completely in his warmth. She had never felt safer, more content or more loved in her entire life.
Toph fell asleep smiling.