Toph paced. She had refused to wait for Aang outside, or even in the entry hall of her parents’ home, as if by making sure she didn’t look overeager for him to arrive, she could persuade herself that she was less eager than she actually was. She knew Aang wouldn’t think twice about finding her out in the gardens when he landed. But her father might. And she was reluctant to indulge the feelings and hopes that gave rise to her impatience - not when nothing had been voiced, when it might all be in her head. So, immediately after supper, she had shut herself up in her bedroom to wait, and paced, back and forth, trying to ignore her fluttering stomach.
He was supposed to arrive in the evening, and it was getting late. There was an ache in Toph’s head that she recognized as exhaustion, though her adrenaline kept her from feeling sleepy. She couldn’t stay in her room any longer. Frustrated with herself, she pushed open the door and made her way along the hall toward the front of the house.
When she heard voices coming from the sitting room, she stopped short, still a few paces from the door and out of the occupants’ line of sight. Through the stone floor, she could see not only her father on his fancy chair, but Aang standing in front of him. “...have a word with you in private before you send for her,” the avatar was saying.
On the other side of the wall, Toph frowned. What on earth could Aang and her father need to have a private conversation about? The two of them had only met a handful of times, and had never once exchanged more than polite small talk, as far as she knew. She wondered if she should leave, but curiosity rooted her to the spot.
“Very well,” Lao said, sounding almost as puzzled as Toph felt. “What is it?”
Aang’s heart was pounding; Toph could feel it with almost uncomfortable clarity, and feel him shuffling his feet. “I know we didn’t start off on the best terms,” he said. “I know you weren’t always happy about your daughter’s involvement with me, but I hope you know that I would never let any harm come to her that I could prevent, or treat her with anything but the highest respect. Knowing her has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. Toph is extraordinary. An extraordinary bender, and an extraordinary woman.”
There was warmth and pride in Lao’s voice when he responded. “That she is. I only regret that it took me so long to realize it.”
Toph swallowed, unconsciously pressing herself closer to the wall, though she could hear just fine.
“But,” Lao prompted, “that isn’t all you want to speak with me about, is it?”
“No.” Aang took a deep breath. Toph held hers, sensing that something very important was happening or about to happen, something she should understand, but couldn’t quite reach. “Toph was my teacher first, and then my closest friend,” Aang went on. “But… she’s become more to me than that.”
Toph’s heart stopped.
Aang wasn’t finished. “I planned to tell her during this visit,” he said, almost shyly. “If she’s willing, I want to court her, and, I hope, make her my wife someday. But I thought it was only appropriate that I ask your permission first.”
There was a short silence, during which Toph leaned her forehead against the wall with a wide, dopey grin, fleetingly tempted to burst into the room and kiss Aang senseless right there in front of her father, but finding herself still unable to move. It wasn’t that she hadn’t wondered. She had been driving herself crazy with wondering for months. But hearing him say it was something else.
Her father’s voice interrupted her wild thoughts. “You and I both know that I have never been able to prevent Toph from doing exactly what she wants to do, and I have learned not to presume to try. But if you want my approval…” He let out a heavy breath. “You have it. I wish she had found someone whose affairs were, ah, less dangerous. But she can look out for herself, hard as it was for me to realize, and she could hardly have a better protector or a more respectable match than the avatar.”
Aang sighed in relief. “Thank you!” he said, already shuffling backwards toward the door. “I’ll, ah, go find her, then.”
He turned to go, but before he had a chance to get far, Toph found her feet and stepped into the doorway, swallowing hard. “Twinkle Toes!”
His heart rate jumped through the roof when she appeared. His voice, though, was warm, giving away none of what he had just been saying. “Hey, Toph.” He opened his arms and moved toward her, but she stopped him with an outstretched hand. She didn’t intend to leave him hanging for long, but being Toph, she found it too tempting to have her moment of fun first.
“You know,” she said, trying to suppress a smile, “I thought I taught you better than this.”
“Better than what?” Aang sounded baffled at his reception.
Toph’s face was heating up, but she clenched her fists behind her back and stood her ground. “You’re supposed to be my earthbending student, but you can’t even feel when another person is standing right outside the door, listening to everything you’re saying?”
Aang’s heartbeat, which had begun to slow down after her entrance, spiked again. “Oh.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot and rubbed at the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Toph.” He really did sound embarrassed, and maybe a little sad. “This isn’t how” -
Toph interrupted him, putting on an exaggerated glare and thrusting an accusing finger in his face. He took a step back. “And what do you think you’re doing asking my dad for me like I’m some kind of prize, huh?”
“No, I didn’t mean” - Aang raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’d just, you know, prefer if he didn’t hate me and accuse me of kidnapping this time.”
Toph folded her arms. “I ought to bury you in rocks for all of this,” she said sternly. “You’re lucky that I love you too.”
There was a beat of silence as her words sank in, and then Aang gasped softly. “You - ?”
“Yeah,” she said, and finally let a wide, genuine smile break through her facade. “That’s right, Twinkle Toes.”
Aang laughed in delight and grabbed her around the waist. She yelped, clutching at his shoulders, as he lifted her right up off the floor and spun her around in a circle. When he set her back on her feet, he pulled her into a tight hug and rested his chin on top of her head. “Oh, Toph,” he whispered.
They were interrupted by a small, uncomfortable cough from Lao, whose presence Toph had temporarily forgotten. “Ahem. It’s getting late. Toph, would you show the avatar to his guest room? And,” he added sternly, “go back to your own room once you do, am I clear?”
Aang rubbed the back of his neck as he and Toph stepped apart. Toph only grinned. “You said it yourself, dad. You can’t stop me from doing what I want to do.” She winked suggestively at Aang and grabbed his hand. “Come on, Twinkle Toes.”
Lao’s helpless protest of “Young lady…!” followed them as Toph pulled Aang out of the room and down the hall. Once they were safely out of earshot, she turned to him, smirking. “He’s too easy to mess with.”
Aang chuckled and shook his head. “You’re impossible.”
“You wouldn’t want me any other way.”
“You’re right.” Aang grabbed her other hand, pulling her around to face him fully. “You know, I got an answer from your father, but not from you.” He leaned his forehead against hers. “I would like to court you, Toph Beifong. With your permission…?”
Toph rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t stop smiling. “You’re a sap, Twinkle Toes.”
“Is that a yes?”
“ Yes . Now shut up and kiss me, will you?”