"So where is everyone else?" Aang finally broached the subject over a cup of tea in the academy's rough kitchen. "I tried the Fire Capital but Iroh sent me off to look for you in Omashu and they sent me here."
Toph was slouched in her chair across from him, feet on the table as she blew on her hot cup. "We all go away together for the first month of the fall season. Keeps us connected when we're so busy."
"Well I guess with Zuko being Fire Lord-"
"And Sokka's planning the city they're building in the South Pole, when he's not off with his dad for peace talks or learning Chieftain-y things. It's hard on Suki but she's not leaving the Kyoshis without a very good reason."
"I thought they might be married by now."
"Well they keep trying," She snorted. "One of them will ask the other and it'll be a perfect romantic moment and then Suki will mention how nice it will be not to have to make the trip to the South Pole to see him, or Sokka'll start talking about where in the new city he wants their house and it will all descend to bickering again."
"And Katara?" he asked, She could hear in his voice and his heartbeat how desperate he was for the question to sound casual. Toph quirked a wry smile. Seven years…
"Still pining after Sugar Queen?"
"Huh." He was flustered but he wasn't lying. Maybe she was reading him wrong. "Sweetness is happy. She's got a horde of lady waterbenders who've followed her down to the South. I think Chief Arnook is annoyed that so many young women have left the North Pole, but that's what you get for being leader of a chauvinist society. She's the Water Ambassador to the Council of Four now too."
The Council had been Aang's idea, but it had only been established for a few months before he'd disappeared. The intention was for the council to have one member elected from each of the races, mediated by the Avatar. Then the council would address any issues that they believe impacted the world as a whole, such as wars or natural disasters, to better maintain communication and balance between the nations. The representatives to the council could not be the ruling authority in their lands, but the council and the leaders of all nations would convene twice a year to address any major grievances. Aang – with advice from the other leaders – had suggested that to make up for the gaps in the Avatar's line of succession, a loyal sage from the temple of the Avatar's previous incarnation would mediate the council if the situation called for it.
Of course they'd only really paid attention to Sage Shyu's appointment when Aang had disappeared three weeks later. Should have noticed that.
Piandao was the Fire Nation's representative to the council. Bato had stood for the Water Tribes at first, but he wasn't fond of the position and had stepped down almost as soon as Katara came of age. The Earth Kingdom people had appointed General Howe as their voice and thus far the arrangement seemed to be working well. There were even a few minor groups starting to clamor for a position at the open council's meetings, such as the Sandbenders and the Waterbenders of the Foggy Swamp.
She told as much to Aang who seemed delighted.
"You'll have to grab your spot back for the next meeting," She reminded him. "But you might want to let them all know you're home first. Or don't, bet that would get a good reaction."
"I'd like to see Katara again." He mused. Toph rolled her useless eyes. Missing infatuated heartbeat or not, that boy always had Sweetness on the brain. She considered spilling the beans but figured that if they'd been waiting this long for him Katara would probably want to tell Twinkletoes herself.
"She should be back at the South Pole by now. And free for two weeks still. I told you Sparky cut our vacation short? Come to think of it Iroh probably told him you were back!" She slammed her cup down on the wooden table, ignoring the tea that spilled over the edge. "That sneak wasn't even going to tell us! You did the right thing coming to me Twinkletoes."
She could hear him chuckle softly but decided to ignore it. "Anyway, you should go see her – and Sokka, and Suki come to think of it. Not Zuko though, Avatar hoarding twerp."
That made him laugh uproariously and she was suddenly struck with the unfamiliar desire to see his face.
"We can set you up in one of the visiting master's rooms tonight if you don't want to take off right away." For some reason this seemed to pull all the mirth out of the room.
"You're not coming along?"
"Twinkles I've got responsibilities here. The older students need training and -"
"Come on Toph! I haven't seen you in seven years and you were just going to let me leave tomorrow morning?"
Ruthlessly squishing down the desire to shake him hysterically or burst into frustrated tears, she attempted nonchalance. "...Well, yes."
Aang reached across the table and snatched up her hand. "Your assistant said no one expects you for another two weeks. Please," He wheedled. "I'm turning twenty at the end of the month; this can be my birthday present!"
"I already have a present for you." She snapped back before she could stop herself. The Airbender's surprise was palpable.
"How could you -"
Sweetness is going to kill you ruin this. "Alright Twinkletoes, I'll come along to the land of ice and blindness."
"Really?" Toph let out a quiet breath of relief. He's still as flighty as ever.
"Well since you can't seem to do without me. Wouldn't want to let the Avatar down."
Aang's grin was so brilliant Toph swore she might actually be able to see it. "You never do."
"You are completely horrible."
"You didn't miss this?"
"How can you claim to be a force for good in the world?"
"Come on, it's just like old times!"
"I hate you. Go back to the sealion turtle."
Toph was sprawled on her back across Appa's cushioned saddle, dizzy from the lack of sensory input and trying her best to not throw up. The better part of a decade away hadn't helped her hard won Appa-travel tolerance at all. A cool calloused hand covered her forehead gently, easing away the beginning pinches of a tension headache. She hummed in pleasure at the feeling and heard Twinkletoes laugh above the sound of the rushing wind.
"That's a pretty neat trick."
"It's waterbending. I can chill the water in my blood slightly to lower my temperature. And..." The coolness was replaced by faint warmth as Aang slid heated fingers to her temples. "Firebending!"
"Hot and cold running Avatar," She mused. "Now that's gonna come in handy with the ladies."
He refused to rise to her bait, but Toph decided that was alright as long as he kept on soothing her worries away. Besides she could feel his heart pound and knew he was blushing.
"You want to set down soon? Appa's getting tired."
"I thought we were getting close?"
"Yeah, but we'll have to cross Whaletail Island first; and I'd rather not get there after everyone's asleep."
Appa touched down on the packed sand of the beach with a groan of relief that Toph echoed as she rolled herself down the flying bison's tail. The earthbender dug her fingers into the wet grains as she felt the whole shape of the land open up to her. Aang's light footsteps came to rest beside her head and he offered her a hand up. "I know the beach is nice but I promise there'll be rock inland."
She made a face at him but reached up to grab his wrist. He gave a yank and she literally bounded to her feet, surprised by Aang’s new strength. Stumbling, Toph braced herself against his shoulders too late to avoid burying her nose in his chest. She inhaled sharply at the slight pain but was immediately distracted by the smell of fresh air, rough soap and warm skin. Aang lifted her chin, gently tilting her head up.
"Yeah," She stepped back sharply, rubbing the bridge of her nose, and picked up one of the packs that had hit the ground next to Appa. "Where to fearless leader?"
Aang found them a clearing not too far beyond the tree line, on top of a steep outcropping and the two of them began to set up camp. They moved in oddly perfect sync, wordlessly diving up the tasks as though they had done it every night since they were children. The ominous sound of thunder rolled in the distance and without being asked she bent a yurt-like earth tent big enough to keep them both dry. A flick of firebending, a waterbending tug and they had a cheery campfire and water to fill the stone pot Toph produced, but she pushed the food pack towards Aang.
"Unless you've turned into a food bender while I was gone, I wouldn't have let you anyway. I think my taste buds only just grew back from last time."
Katara had attempted to teach all of them to cook while they were training at the western air temple. Zuko and The Duke had actually gotten pretty good at it and all of them had learned to at least make rice without it burning to the bottom of the pot. But spices all look the same when you can only see the shape of the granules and Toph's cooking tended to be much too sweet or salty, or - on one memorable occasion - spicy enough to get her banned from cooking rotation and have them all cursing her name for the next day.
While Aang threw ingredients into the pot Toph unrolled the reed mat she'd brought to protect her from the ground's dampness and began to brush out her hair. She could feel his surprise at the feminine gesture and reached around the firepit to whack him with the flat of the brush. "I'm not thirteen anymore."
Toph would never admit it under penalty of torture but her slow slide towards the edges of femininity had begun as a way to connect with her mother. The letters she had sent home during their year on the run from the firelord had driven her father to distraction, but had given Poppy Bei Fong a new appreciation for her daughter. Now that she didn't have to push aside all her hopes for mother-daughter bonding because her 'precious delicate lotus' would never have a chance to be a properly established woman, Poppy had directed all her energy into finding common ground with her baby girl.
There had never been any point in trying to make Toph into something she wasn't, but the wife of Lao Bei Fong was a formidable strategist. She eschewed makeup, fine clothes and jewelry in favour of teaching her daughter the magic of shiny, brushed hair and clean nails; she set out to prove to Toph that beauty was a tool as much as earthbending katas. And that having someone else pick your toes for you could be even better than doing it yourself.
At nineteen the diminutive grand master had embraced her femininity as far as she was willing. She'd come to enjoy the sensation of a clean face and smooth hair, almost as much as she loved to thrash those that thought they could win her over with flattery.
By the time she had worked through the tangles the wind had knotted into her dark locks, Aang was passing her a bowl of delicious smelling congee.
"You want to borrow the brush Fuzz Head?"
Aang ran his fingers through the dark shaggy strands that almost hid his tattoo. "I've been meaning to shave it off. But this is as close has I've been able to get with airbending and I didn't really want to try to burn it shorter."
"It's kinda nice – Soft," She admitted. "Plus: good for keeping all that air in your head."
He reached out and twinned a few of her black strands around his fingers. "I like yours better, it's so long." Tugging gently he made her sway back and forth until she elbowed him in the ribs.
"Knock it off Twinkletoes!"
A strange silence settled between the two of them as they ate; the easy routine of earlier evaporating into the evening air. The awkwardness impressed upon Toph once again just how long it had been since they were together. She ran her fingers over the beads that held the airbender amulet around her neck. The camphor wood was worn shiny from her touch. Every time Aang had wormed his way into her mind she would reach for the necklace, as though he might feel the company of her thoughts. The weight of so many years seemed unbearable.
Irritated with her own emotions, she dumped the remnants of her dinner into the fire pit and stretched out on her mat, leaning away from her companion to trace shapes in the dirt. Aang seemed hurt by her dismissal but she had no idea how to comfort him without making herself vulnerable in turn. I need Katara. She sighed and rolled back over, her sightless eyes on the ceiling, listening to him move around their little camp doing all the work without complaint. Exasperated with his meekness, Toph sat up long enough to earthbend their food into a little pocket underground – keeping it safe from prying animals – and blast a garbage trench for him across the clearing. Then, yanking her travelling blanket free of her pack she resettled herself for sleep.
No rest was forthcoming, however. Not with Aang's presence buzzing along her nerves. At long last he lay down across the tent, sifting back and forth for a moment before propping himself up on one elbow and reaching out to pluck at the edge of her blanket.
"This is new."
"No its not," She smacked his hand away. "I've had this for ages."
"I meant it's a new thing – you never used to sleep with a blanket. It was always just Toph and the dirt." He explained.
She didn't turn her head, there wasn't really any point in looking his way, but she refocused her attention towards him. "Do you remember on cold nights when we were travelling together and we'd end up squeezed into the space of Sokka and Katara's sleeping bags? With Snoozels in the middle, with you trying to wiggle your way between him and Sweetness, and me trying to suck up all his body heat?"
"Then Zuko joined us and he'd be on your other side, facing out so he could wake us all up every time he heard a badgertoad croak and thought it was the Fire Lord." The nostalgic smile was evident in his voice.
"And Appa's tail as a big furry pillow." She finished. "It was …colder all on my own."
Toph held up the blanket like a shield between them, stripping the moment of its sentimentality. "So Suki bought me this. She said its water tribe colours and fire nation fabric, so it ought to be a good stand in for Sparky and Snoozels."
There was a long pause. "It was cold for me too Toph." There was a tentative tug on the reed mat beneath her. "But we could be warm again if you want."
Reason and distance and seven years of intervening experience told Toph that she wasn't a runaway girl in the forest anymore. That she'd worked hard to beat back the cold on her own and she was utterly self-sufficient now. But Aang's long missed vibrations sang in her bones, calling her, as he always had, to throw caution to the wind. They said leap and promised her protection from the fall.
With a huff that wasn't nearly as irritated sounding as she'd intended, Toph bent her sleeping mat over till it was flush against his. Aang didn't wrap his arm around her waist – they were still too raw with one another for such an intimate gesture – but he lay on his back, arms behind his head, and wriggled over till her shoulders pressed against his ribs, her head tucked under his elbow.
"I'm not sharing my blanket." She insisted; feeling rather than hearing his hum of agreement.
Outside the earthen tent rain began to fall.
After three days of travelling Kotta had finally begun to become less annoying. The young warrior had been taciturn to the point of rudeness when Katara had first introduced them, which had suited Toph just fine. But the northern Earth Kingdom had apparently astonished him in to speaking. Now it seemed he wanted to learn everything about everything and he was willing to question until she ran dry of answers.
Arnook had decided that after the isolation the Northern Tribe had undergone during the Great Fire War it was time to make themselves known in the world again. So rather than remain on their glacier dodging ice flows as a rite of manhood, young men would make the journey south on foot across the great expanse of the Earth Kingdom. Gaining knowledge of the wider world and connecting the southern and northern tribes together. Kotta was the first to attempt the rite, and Toph – who was bound for Kyoshi Island – was along as a failsafe. The Northern Tribe's elders had practically scoffed them out of the palace when it had been suggested, but Katara - in her very best sugar queen voice - had reminded them of what they had thought of women waterbenders only four years ago. It was times like that when Toph felt she and Sweetness really connected.
Tapping the ground with her feet she watched Kotta move around their campsite. It was winter in the Earth Kingdom and snow was falling, though not staying on the ground. She had let the inquisitive warrior pick their resting place, perfectly content to earthbend herself a tent and leave him out in the snow if he didn't find a spot to her liking. But Kotta had come through, and they were now holed up in a cozy shallow cave with a cheery fire crackling. Toph was lounging as close to the radiant heat as she dared and contemplating the next phase of their trip when he approached her and lay down near enough that they were touching shoulder to hip. She moved away, or would have, should have moved; but instead she stayed, attributing the inappropriate closeness as an idiosyncrasy of the water tribe – crazy people living on the ice – and enjoying the heat.
She knew Kotta was handsome, whatever that meant. The earthbender had heard the girls of the Northern Water Tribe cooing over his blue eyes and his dashing smile. He was tall and impressively muscled, her senses told her he was bigger and broader than Sokka, and lying next to him, closer than she'd ever been to a man not part of their little family, she was lost in the unexpected pleasure of feeling diminutive. Kotta's smell, his voice, tugged at her in a way she couldn't quite explain, causing a weird fluttering tension to coil through her body. The young warrior was talking about something, but Toph didn't notice until he'd stopped and she became aware that he was looking at her. Unthinking she turned her head towards him and stopped when she realized just how close they were.
His breath was a soft faint sensation against her lips and as though by previous agreement Kotta leaned down and she leaned forward and they were kissing.
She had been kissed before. But Chen's kisses had always been fumbling, sweet and slightly ridiculous. This was dark and passionate and heady, sending all her pent up, ignored hormones boiling to the surface. For the first time in a long time Toph gave up on rationality, wrapped her arms around his neck and completely lost her head.