"Hey, can I show you something?" Aang asks Toph on their second to last day on the ship. Toph nods and hold out her hand so he can guide her. Not that she really needs to be guided, but she likes the feel of his hand in hers. He pulls her though the maze of passages until they end up on deck. No one else is around.
"What do you want to show me?" Toph asks. To answer, Aang holds something out in his hand. Toph raises an eyebrow, waiting for him to explain what it is since she can't see.
"It's a metal rod. I bent it last night." The earthbender's eyes light up as she grabs the object in Aang's hand. She can tell it came from the railing on the deck of the ship. It's been twisted and creased perfectly down the middle.
"Great job!" Toph approves. "How long did it take you?" He shrugs modestly.
"Not long, actually." Toph doesn't see the blush creeping onto his face. "I just remembered what you told me." Toph's own words echo in her mind. The thought of him recalling her instructions makes her smile.
"Ready for Step Two?" she asks with a devilish grin.
"What's Step Two?" To answer, Toph bends the metal around Aang's ankles. He's now stuck to the floor of the deck.
"Get yourself free." The airbender snorts in spite of himself.
"Still not going to go easy on me, huh? As you wish, Sifu Toph." He performs an over exaggerated bow before concentrating on the metal holing him captive.
Toph stays with him the entire time, waiting for him to make something happen. She paces, forming and re-forming her space rock bracelet (it's become sort of her own little stress ball). She says nothing the entire time. No words of encouragement. No advice. Not even any insults. He has to figure it out on his own.
Shortly after his breathing turns shallow (he was about to give up), something happens. The iron around his ankles crumples and falls away. Instead of looking happy, he slumps into a sitting position and rubs his feet. Being held hostage by an inanimate object isn't fun.
"I'm proud of you," Toph congratulates. "You're starting to get the hang of it."
"Thank you, Toph." This time, his bow is genuine. "I couldn't have done it without you."
"No need to get mushy," Toph says to hide the fact that she's blushing.
"Yes, there is," he says, laughing slightly. "Come here."
He grasps her wrist and pulls her toward him. Toph is expecting a hug, so she's surprised when his hand slips behind her neck, and he plants a gentle kiss on her forehead. There's no use in hiding her flushed face now.
"See you at dinner." And just like that, he's gone.
They're having meat. Again. Aang rolls his eyes when he hears the cook is making roasted hippo pork. The whole crew on this boat is Fire Nation, and they love their meat. The airbender tries to eat his salad slowly, so he won't finish the food before the main course is served.
He takes a sideways glance at the slender figure eating next to him. Toph doesn't seem to feel as awkward as he does. He doesn't know why he kissed her forehead earlier. Gratitude for all she's taught him? No, he thinks with a bitter shake of his head. He knows he can't deny it anymore. He has feelings for his strong-willed earthbending teacher.
The thing that stumps him most is why. Why has he developed a deep caring for her that goes past friendship? Maybe it's her subtle change in personality. Maybe it's because she's proven how loyal she is to him by traveling the world all over again with him. He knows for sure he has always loved her. But he figured it was more a brother-sister relationship. His best guess is that, before Sozin's Comet, all of his attention was directed toward Katara.
Only now, two years later, does he realize why he craved the waterbender's affection. It's because he was raised by monks. He had no real parents. When he met Katara, she was like the motherly figure he had always wanted. He was so stupid back then. But, now, he's over her. At least, that's what he tells himself every day.
"Right, Aang?" He barely registers Toph's voice, which pulls him out of his thoughts. She and the others at the table are slightly chuckling.
"Huh?" he asks, totally out of it.
"I just said last time you were on a Fire Nation ship, you had a full head of hair then, too." She ruffles the dark hair on his head. He gives a halfhearted laugh, and a small smile graces his lips.
"What's wrong?" Toph asks quietly. She senses he isn't really into the conversation.
"Oh, uh, I'm just tired," he lies. He doesn't want to tell her that she's the only thing on his mind. "I'm going to bed."
"Okay," she says, a little surprised by his uncharacteristic glumness. "Goodnight."
The airbender grunts his response and heads for his room. Not a moment after he closes the door, there is a knock. Aang opens it to find Iroh holding a scroll.
"There is something you need to read, young Avatar." His voice is grim. He hands him the scroll. It's a letter.
Aang isn't at breakfast. That's the first thing Toph notices when she steps into the dining hall of the ship. Instantly, she assumes something is wrong. But, then again, it is the last day of their time onboard. Maybe he's just off making preparations for arrival in the Fire Nation.
As a part of her usual routine, Toph eats her food with Hope, and then retreats to the bathroom to freshen up with the three-year-old.
Hope giggles and splashes in the sudsy bath water and makes a sad face when Toph says bath time is over. The earthbender dries off the little girl and dresses her. There is a small smile on her face. She won't admit it to anyone besides Hope, but she loves the time they spend together. The child is so lively, and she always puts Toph in a good mood. Every day, she sees her more as a daughter. She doesn't know if it will remain like that forever, but she definitely enjoys it now.
When Aang doesn't show up for lunch, Toph goes searching for him. She finds him in his room, crouched against the wall. Judging by the fact he's wearing only loose trousers, Toph guesses he's been her all day.
"What's wrong?" she asks tentatively. He jerks his head up, as if he didn't notice her walk in and sit beside him.
"Couldn't sleep," he says hoarsely. Toph can't see that he has tears in his eyes, but she does notice his heart beat is way faster than normal.
"Was it a bad dream?" Aang bites his lip and slowly shakes his head.
"Then, what is it?" He's silent for a very long time.
"Iroh gave me a letter yesterday," he begins. A sound a rustling paper suggests he still has it with him. "It's a wedding invitation."
Before Toph can ask another question, Aang says in an emotionless tone, "It states, 'Avatar Aang and Lady Toph Bei Fong are cordially invited to the marriage of His Majesty, Fire Lord Zuko and Her Highness, Water Princess Katara'."
AN: aw, Aang is sad. When will he realize he has to be over her for good? I think a certain earthbender can help him take his mind off things…