An Advantageous Marriage

The idea, when it first occurred to him, was so completely preposterous that Fire Lord Iroh, the famed Dragon of the West, actually thought for several mad moments that he had mistakenly made poppy tea instead of ginseng. Again. He must have looked totally crazed because when Minister Jeong Jeong came into the throne room with some papers for the Fire Lord to peruse, the former general gave a cry of alarm.

"My Lord!" He rushed to Iroh's side. "My Lord, are you well?"

"Huh? What?" The Fire Lord blinked. "Oh, yes. Yes, I am fine." He waved off his minister's concern. "I was merely thinking."

"Of the Earth Kingdom's continued refusal to allow our merchant ships to trade in their ports?" Jeong Jeong asked.

"Oh, no. Not that."

"Of the Water Tribes' threat to flood our coastlines if we continue rebuilding our navy?"

"No. Not that, either."

"Of the Avatar's intention to free the Fire Sages and install them once more in the reconstructed temple on the Crescent Island, though they should be beheaded for the traitors they are instead?"

Iroh laughed. "Certainly not that! Actually, I was thinking of marriage."

Jeong Jeong was genuinely startled. "Marriage?" He gaped at the Fire Lord.

"You know that I am getting on in years, and Prince Zuko, my nephew, has unfortunately refused to be my heir out of some misguided sense of honor and penance for his father's usurpation. But I need an heir. So I'm afraid that I would have to get married," Iroh explained.

"O-kay," the minister nodded slowly. "But, my Lord, why don't we first try convincing Prince Zuko again to be your heir? Marriage is a very drastic step and you really should not rush into it." Privately, he thought that Iroh must have been drinking poppy tea to ever come up with that crazy idea.

"You are right," the Fire Lord sighed. "And I have to admit that I am not looking forward to going courting again at my age. So, why don't we pay a visit to that stubborn nephew of mine and try to make him come to his senses?"

Iroh swept out of the throne room with Jeong Jeong trailing behind him. A few minutes later, Jeong Jeong came back. Grumbling to himself, he picked up the tea set then ran to catch up with the Fire Lord.

Zuko lived in an estate just outside of the capital. Since the defeat of the Fire Nation at the hands of the Avatar and his allies five years ago and Iroh's assumption to the throne, the Prince had become more cut off from other people than ever. After betraying Iroh and siding with his sister Azula during the fall of Ba Sing Se, he had been welcomed home by their father, Fire Lord Ozai. However, his homecoming proved to be an awakening instead. He finally came to the painful realization that he would never be Ozai's favored child. He could never be like Azula and, more importantly, he didn't want to be like Azula. He didn't want to be a monster.

In the final battle, Zuko had stepped in at the pivotal moment and dealt the killing blow to his father when Avatar Aang had hesitated. He had then told the Avatar and his friends that, as Ozai's son and the royal prince, he took full responsibility for all the crimes that had been perpetrated by the Fire Nation and they could punish him as they so wish. But then Iroh had appeared and told him not to be so melodramatic.

He wanted to go into exile after peace had been declared, but Iroh appealed to him to stay. Iroh also practically forced him to accept the estate and to retain his title as a Prince of the Fire Nation. However, his uncle couldn't convince him to be his heir. He absolutely refused to accept the position, saying that the son of the man who had taken away Iroh's birthright by deceit didn't deserve such an honor.

Zuko was meditating in the garden when the Fire Lord and Jeong Jeong arrived. They didn't allow the steward to announce their presence, so the Prince was startled when Iroh suddenly spoke. "Good day, nephew!" Iroh said cheerfully.

"Uncle!" Zuko quickly stood up and bowed respectfully to the Fire Lord. "No one informed me that you were here." He quirked an eyebrow at the tea set that Jeong Jeong was still carrying. The minister merely shrugged and looked resigned to this task.

"Well, I saw it was such a beautiful day," Iroh told him, "and I remembered that I hadn't seen you in a while. I thought to myself, 'Why not visit my nephew Zuko? And bring him some ginseng tea?'"

"That's nice." Zuko looked skeptical. He knew his uncle too well. The old man was clearly up to something but, for the moment, he decided to let Iroh have his little charade. He called for his servants to bring a table and chairs after Iroh said that he wished to take tea out in the garden.

"Jeong Jeong," the Fire Lord beamed at his minister, "if you would be so kind -?"

With a little sigh, Jeong Jeong used his Firebending skills to heat the tea. Iroh then finally took pity on the old general and served the tea himself. Zuko let a few minutes of tea-drinking and idle chatter pass before he set down his cup and cleared his throat. "So," he fixed his uncle with an implacable stare, "what really brings you here?"

Iroh smiled at him beatifically. Zuko immediately knew that he wasn't going to like what the elderly man was going to say. "Zuko," his uncle began, "you know that my years are coming to an end." He held up his hand for silence when Zuko looked like he was about to make a protest to the contrary. "You know it, nephew," he said emphatically then went on, "When I die, I want to be sure that the Fire Nation and its people will be in capable hands."

Zuko interrupted. "I'm sorry, Uncle, but if this is about making me your heir, I've already given you my answer years ago. I cannot accept such an honor. I don't deserve such an honor. Not after all the evil I've done."

"But, Prince Zuko -!" Jeong Jeong was abruptly silenced by a look from the Fire Lord.

"Very well," Iroh sighed. "I was really hoping that you had changed your mind after all this time. But, since you haven't, I guess I would have to take that alternative Minister Jeong Jeong and I discussed earlier."

"What alternative?" Zuko asked, curious in spite of himself.

"I need an heir, so I'm afraid I would have to get married and beget one," Iroh announced.

"What?!" If his uncle had declared that he was Avatar Kyoshi and started wearing her traditional costume, Zuko wouldn't have been more shocked. "But, - but you're so old!" the Prince exclaimed.

"I am at the prime of my life!" the Fire Lord huffed indignantly.

"A few minutes ago you just said that your years were coming to an end!" Zuko reminded him.

"You did say it," Jeong Jeong seconded.

"I was speaking metaphorically!" Iroh crossed his arms and looked peevish. "So you won't be my heir, but you also won't give me your blessing on my forthcoming marriage! You wound me, Prince Zuko!"

Zuko was instantly chastened. "Forgive me, Uncle," he said in his most contrite tone. "But if this is what you must do, then I will support your decision. I remain your most loyal nephew."

"If you were really loyal, you'd agree to be my heir," Iroh grumbled, but then he smiled. "Or, you could come back to the Palace and help me in my search for a suitable bride."

Zuko actually paled at the thought. "Must I?" he said faintly.

"Oh, yes," his uncle nodded. "It would make me very happy."

So Iroh had Zuko exactly where he wanted his nephew: back in the Palace. As soon as the Prince had been installed in his old room, the Fire Lord had Minister Jeong Jeong send out a proclamation throughout the entire kingdom that he was looking for a young woman of good family and impeccable character who would be his bride. This announcement was met with great shock. Most of the people in the Fire Nation had naturally assumed that Prince Zuko would succeed Iroh as Fire Lord. But with this startling news that Iroh was looking for a wife, the speculation as to why Zuko had, in effect, been disinherited was ruthless.

Not that the people cared that Zuko would no longer be Fire Lord. Unfortunately for the young Prince, his own people didn't view him with much fondness. As far as a lot of them were concerned, especially the influential noble families, he was a disfigured weakling whose only redeeming quality was his amazing luck at being born into the Royal Family of the Fire Nation. Otherwise, he would have been a nonentity.

These same noble families now welcomed the news of Fire Lord Iroh's search for a bride with all enthusiasm. They saw the golden opportunity of allying themselves with the Royal Family and one of their descendants inheriting the throne. Though the throne had been tarnished by defeat, it was still a power to be reckoned with in the world and they sought to have that power through an advantageous marriage.

Within a week, the loveliest unmarried ladies in the land began converging in the capital. Iroh graciously received them one by one in a hall that had been especially prepared for the purpose. The Fire Lord briefly interviewed each of these beautiful misses over tea, with a mortified Zuko by his side. If Iroh liked a particular girl, he had his nephew take note of her name so he could invite her to a ball that was being planned for the end of the month. This went on for the better part of three weeks, with Zuko becoming more and more embarrassed by the day, until the monotony of the exercise was broken by a most unexpected arrival.

Iroh had just dismissed the hundred thirty-seventh girl when the entire Palace suddenly began to shake. "It's an earthquake!" Zuko shouted as he tried to get his uncle to safety. Before they could take a step, the floor split in two and a figure rose up out of the ground.

The Prince's first thought was "Earthbender assassin!" and he quickly moved in front of Iroh and assumed a fighting stance. But then the Earthbender spoke. "Sorry about the dramatic entrance." The Earthbender's voice was feminine, and vaguely familiar. "But I didn't think that your guards would have let me in dressed like this." She made a casual gesture with her hand and the floor sealed up once more.

Iroh blinked and studied this strange newcomer for a moment. Then he laughed gaily. "Toph? It's you!" He ran to embrace the girl that Zuko finally recognized as one of the Avatar's insufferable friends. "Oh, it is such a pleasure to see my little Toph again!"

"Hey, I haven't been little in years!" she protested, but the smile on her face made it clear that she didn't really mind Iroh's teasing. Those milky eyes of hers then settled on Zuko unerringly. "Hey, broody boy!" She smirked at him. "Looking good."

Zuko scowled. He would never understand why his uncle was so fond of this girl. She may be the greatest Earthbender in the world, a truly astonishing achievement considering that she had been born blind, but she was also uncouth and insolent and irritating beyond words. She never failed to make him want to throttle her whenever she insulted him. And she insulted him every chance she got.

"I just had to find out if the news was true," she was now saying to Iroh. "You're really looking for a wife? At your age?"

"I have a duty to my country to produce an heir," Iroh explained.

"Well, what about Princess here?" she said. "I thought he was your heir and he'd succeed you as Fire Lord."

Iroh gave a long-suffering sigh. "Unfortunately, Zuko does not desire the position of Fire Lord."

"What? He'd much rather be Fire Lady?"

The Prince barely restrained himself from throwing flames at her. "Uncle," he said sharply, "there are ladies waiting." He placed a deliberate emphasis on the word ladies as he sneered in disdain at the Earthbender's filthy appearance.

She blithely ignored his slur on her looks. "So, can I stay here for a few days and watch you make a fool of yourself?" she asked Iroh.

"Of course! Of course," the Fire Lord nodded. "We will dine together tonight so you can tell me all about the adventures you've had since we saw each other last."

"I'm sure bathing wasn't one of them," Zuko muttered.

"What's that on your face?" Toph suddenly exclaimed, pointing at him and looking alarmed.

"What?!"

A slab of rock hit him on the face. Toph chuckled evilly and even Iroh burst into laughter. Iroh quickly sobered though when he saw Zuko's breath begin to smoke. The Fire Lord immediately called for a servant to escort Toph to a guest chamber. Then he tried to calm his nephew.

"Now, now, Prince Zuko. She was merely teasing you," he said. "She is a very high-spirited young lady."

"If she's going to be staying in the Palace for a few days, you better keep her far away from me, or I swear I'll - ," Zuko left the threat unsaid. He sat down grumpily and picked up the list of ladies' names he had been writing down. "Next!" he shouted.

Zuko's mood was still foul during dinner later that evening. He mostly stayed silent and glared as Toph and his uncle giggled together like the silly servant-girls whenever he walked by. He did the same thing during breakfast the next morning and during the audiences over the next few days. On the one hand, he was glad that Iroh seemed to be enjoying himself very much in the company of the blind Earthbender. On the other hand, he just wished that his uncle's enjoyment didn't come at his expense, because Iroh seemed to laugh loudest whenever Toph made fun of him.

Iroh had managed to convince his young friend to stay till the royal ball that he would be hosting at the month's end. He intended to look over the ladies once more during the ball and then make his final selection for his bride. On the night of the ball, though, Zuko was surprisingly the one who was more nervous than the Fire Lord. "Don't pick someone just because she's beautiful," he counseled his uncle. "She should be smart, because you don't want your heir to be as scatterbrained as the Avatar. She should like the same things you like, like Pai Sho and tea. She should -"

"Nephew, I have done this before!" Iroh told him with a laugh. "Do not worry. I will choose the perfect bride."

"You better, or I wore this dress for nothing!"

Zuko scowled at the sound of the Earthbender's voice. He tried to think of something scathing to say as he turned around to look at her. But, no words came. Instead he felt a little shock go through him.

She looked - female, for the very first time that he could remember. The hair that had always been scraped back into a bun was now an artfully arranged dark mass that flowed down her back. Her robes were of red silk, intricately embroidered with dragons in gold thread. It was obviously borrowed finery since she arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back, however, it suited her perfectly. And her face, - it turned out to be delicately pretty without its usual coating of earth. Zuko found himself speechless at her transformation.

Iroh also looked surprised, but he was looking at Zuko instead of Toph. He cleared his throat. "You look absolutely beautiful, Toph!" he said. "Don't you think so, Prince Zuko?"

"Uhm, er," Zuko frowned, "She looks clean, for once."

"And you're as pretty as ever, Princess," Toph retorted.

Instantly, Zuko became annoyed. The two of them were about to have one of their customary arguments when Iroh quickly stepped between them. "Why don't we proceed to the ball now?" he suggested. "I'm sure the ladies must be getting impatient to see me."

Their names and titles were announced as they each made their entrance into the ballroom. Iroh was immediately swept away by some of the more obviously ambitious potential brides. Toph swiftly became the center of a small crowd who were curious about the legendary blind Earthbender Master. Zuko was left alone in one corner of the grand room where he could glower at everyone to his heart's content.

Most of his glowers, though, were aimed at the Earthbender, who was positively preening at all the attention being bestowed on her. Presently, the Fire Lord cut through her throng of admirers and claimed her for a dance. The two of them moved gracefully to the music and, as Iroh twirled her in his arms, both of them laughing at their silliness, her skirts fluttered just high enough to reveal her bare feet. And, for some reason, Zuko suddenly found himself almost smiling at the sight. Then he frowned again. He was definitely feeling odd.

"If my uncle looks for me," he told one of Iroh's attendants, "tell him I've retired. I'm feeling indisposed." He then left the ballroom and went back to his chamber where he fell asleep and dreamed of his first kiss. But it was a different girl he held in his arms.

Zuko woke up feeling very grumpy the next morning. No sooner had he opened his eyes than a knock sounded on the door and a servant entered to inform him that the Fire Lord desired his presence at the dining hall for breakfast.

"Good morning, nephew!" Iroh greeted him cheerfully. "You missed my big announcement at the ball last night."

"I'm very sorry, Uncle," he said, "but I wasn't feeling too well. So, who is the lucky lady?" He started to sip his tea.

"Toph Bei Fong."

He spat out the tea. "What?!" He stared at his uncle as if the old man had suddenly declared that he was a flying bison and began to hover above the floor. "The Earthbender?"

"Is there a Waterbender named Toph Bei Fong?" Iroh retorted dryly.

"But - but," he sputtered, "she's too young!"

"She is of marriageable age. She hails from a noble Earth Kingdom family. She's an Earthbender Master and a close friend of the Avatar," Iroh enumerated. "All in all, it would be an advantageous marriage."

"But -," he stopped. He actually couldn't think of a good reason why it wouldn't be a good match. His uncle was right. It would be a very advantageous marriage. Of course, the nobles and the priests would most likely protest Iroh's choice, but they would see the wisdom of it in time. The other nations would stop being so distrustful of the Fire Nation once Toph Bei Fong would be crowned as the Fire Lady. The Earth Kingdom would certainly approve of the union, and the Water Tribes would follow their example. The Avatar and his friends, though, - they might have reservations, and they might express those reservations in very obvious ways. But the Earthbender could make them see sense.

Iroh was watching him very keenly. There was a glint in his uncle's eyes that he, too shocked by the news, failed to notice. Finally, Zuko nodded. "It's actually a very wise decision, Uncle," he conceded. "I wish you happiness then."

"Thank you, nephew," Iroh responded. He looked a trifle disappointed at Zuko's acceptance of the betrothal. "I am glad you approve of my choice. But there is one other thing that I would like to ask of you. You are the only one I trust to handle this task."

"What is it?"

"I want you to help Toph plan the wedding."

He was flabbergasted. "Plan the wedding? But, Uncle, I know nothing about weddings! I can come up with a seven-year plan for the Fire Nation to eventually conquer the world again, but to plan a wedding -!"

"I know you will do a very good job," Iroh told him. "Now off you go. I want to be married by the next new moon." He dismissed Zuko.

Having gotten his orders, the Prince went off to look for the Earthbender who was soon to become his aunt by marriage. He found her in her chamber being besieged by several ladies-in-waiting who were trying to assist her with her morning toilette. Needless to say, she wasn't looking too happy about it.

"I said," she shouted, "I can manage!" Using her Earthbending powers, she sent the ladies tumbling to the floor. Then she scowled in Zuko's direction. "Could you please tell these women to leave me alone?" she demanded.

At a curt nod from him, all the ladies scurried out of the room in fright. "You better get used to their attentions," Zuko said as he approached her. "You're going to be the Fire Lady. You'll be waited on hand and foot for the rest of your life."

She shivered. "That's just great." She sounded disgusted. "I go through all the trouble of running away from my family only to end up as royalty. I have half a mind to end this engagement right here and now."

"You can't!" he exclaimed in alarm. "My Uncle needs this marriage."

The Earthbender sighed. "I know. He explained everything to me when he proposed."

"Are you -?" he didn't want to pry into her emotions, but he wanted to know, "Are you certain that you understand exactly what will be asked of you once you marry my Uncle?" He suddenly remembered that she was really just a young girl underneath her shell of toughness. For the first time it occurred to him that she might have had different ideas or dreams about the man that she would marry.

"I was raised a Bei Fong," she answered. "I understand what duty is. And it wouldn't be so bad, I guess. Your Uncle's a good friend of mine. I know he will be a kind husband."

Zuko was surprised. He always knew, of course, that she had a strong sense of friendship and loyalty. Those two traits were the marks of the people in the Avatar's circle. But he had never seen her exhibit such an example of those characteristics before that would compare to what she was ready to do now: namely, sacrificing her own happiness to enter into a marriage of convenience for the sake of helping a friend. He could only admire her selflessness.

"You are a good person, Lady Toph," he said sincerely. "You honor my family by consenting to become a part of it. My Uncle truly made the perfect choice for his bride."

His words seemed to have embarrassed her. "Aw, Princess, for once I don't have anything insulting to say about you."

He was suddenly glad that she was blind, for she couldn't see the uncharacteristic smile that now appeared on his face, or he'd never hear the end of it. It was an unwilling, half-exasperated smile, but a smile nonetheless.

The next few days saw the two of them working together quite closely. Iroh absolutely insisted that they coordinate with each other on every little detail of the wedding. Though Toph pointed out that they could assign the job to any of the dozens of officials in the Palace, the Fire Lord was adamant that his nephew and his intended bride make all of the arrangements. That earned a lot of grumbling from Toph, who had to endure hours with a seamstress fussing over her trousseau. Finally, she announced one morning over breakfast that she couldn't stand the thought of spending another day in the company of Madame Bai and that she was going out of the Palace for some fresh air. Iroh endorsed the idea and ordered Zuko to accompany her. The Prince was only too glad to be excused from his present job of taste testing all the new creations the Palace chefs were readying for the grand event, so horses were saddled, a litter was prepared, and a small procession of guards accompanied Zuko and Toph into the countryside.

"This wasn't what I had in mind when I said I wanted to go out," Toph complained to Zuko as he rode beside the litter that bore her. "I want to feel the earth beneath my feet!"

"You can do that later," he promised. "There's a lake a few miles from here. We'll stop there and you can walk around or take a swim if you want." Their constant proximity over the past few days had altered their behavior toward each other. They got along better now and were almost friends.

"You can have the lake, Princess," she said. "The earth is all I want." The title that she jeeringly used to address him didn't possess its usual sting anymore.

Their company rode on. They were just coming to within sight of the lake when shrill cries broke out and they found themselves beset by a ragged-looking group of horsemen. "Bandits!" the captain of the guards yelled out in warning.

"Oh, thank the heavens!" Toph said eagerly. "Let me down! I'll take them all!"

"No! We're getting out of here!" As much as Zuko craved a good fight himself, he knew that Toph's safety was paramount. He unceremoniously pulled her from the litter and deposited her on his horse, causing her to scream out an expletive that he was astonished to hear issuing from her lips. He shifted his position so he could make room for her on his mount and, shouting out an order to the captain to hold off the bandits until they were away, he unleashed a wide arc of flame against their opponents to clear a path for them. Urging his horse into a full gallop, they sped off.

They traveled a good distance before finally stopping. Toph dismounted quickly and promptly fell face first on the ground. "Be careful!" Zuko said as he also got off the horse and helped her to her feet.

"Hey, what was the big deal?" she demanded angrily. "Just between the two of us we could have beaten those bandits in under a minute!"

"I didn't want to risk you getting hurt in any way," he told her.

"I'm not helpless!" she shouted in indignation.

He was astonished that she could have misunderstood his concern. "I'm well aware of that! You're being -!" A very loud clap of thunder interrupted what he was about to say. Then rain fell down in torrents and they were completely soaked within seconds. "Brilliant!" He grabbed her. "Come on. We need to find shelter." They rode again until they came to the ruins of what appeared to have once been a small shrine. Part of the roof was still in place and they stood under it quite miserably, shivering from the cold.

"You're a Firebender," she said. "Can't you heat up this place?" Her teeth were beginning to chatter.

"I need something that can burn to do that. This building is made of stone," he replied. "But maybe there is something else I can do." He breathed fire on his hands to warm them up then, hesitantly, he took her hands into his own. She started at the unexpected contact, but then she relaxed as she felt the chill on her skin fade. She even smiled. "I guess you're good for something, after all," she remarked teasingly.

Zuko felt strange as he stood there holding her hands. Her face was upturned slightly and her mouth with its soft lips seemed to invite and then capture his gaze. Suddenly, she frowned and cocked her head to the right. "What's that sound?" she wondered. She listened carefully and her frown deepened. "Is that your heart? Why is your heart beating so fast?"

"Toph." It was the first time he had ever called her by name. "I –"

"Prince Zuko!" a loud voice shattered the odd little moment they had been having. "Lady Toph! Thanks heavens you're both safe!" The captain had found them.

Zuko dropped Toph's hands abruptly and moved away from her. She looked confused. "We'd better be getting back to the Palace," he said. Her attendants came for her then. They rode back to the capital as quickly as they could, all eager to put their little misadventure behind them. But though the sun was shining again, there was a storm still raging within the young Prince.

If Iroh noticed that his nephew and his betrothed were unnaturally polite to each other from then on, he gave no sign of it. He merely smiled and approved all the plans they made for his wedding, and kept finding things that he wanted them to work on together.

Eight days before the ceremony was to take place, the Avatar finally arrived with his pets and his two friends from the Southern Water Tribe. The very first thing they did was to try to convince the bride to run away with them.

"Toph, are you really sure that this is what you want to do?" Aang asked worriedly for the seventeenth time.

"As I've already said before, yes," Toph responded impatiently. "I'm absolutely sure. This is a very important union for the Fire Lord. It's a matter of duty and honor."

"But, Toph," Sokka whined, "you have noticed that Iroh is old, right? Sure, he helped us defeat his crazy brother, but he's still old. Do you really want to be married to an old guy?"

"His age is irrelevant," she said. "You can't understand. You weren't raised like I was."

"And I'm thankful for it every day," Katara rejoined. "But, Toph, what about love?"

"What about it?" A strangely-guarded expression came over the Earthbender's face.

"Don't you want to marry a man that you love?" Katara asked sadly.

"It doesn't matter." Toph shrugged. "I'm marrying Iroh. I gave him my word."

With that, Aang and Katara stopped trying to convince their friend not to go through with the wedding. But they let her know that whatever she ultimately chose to do, then they would be there for her. Sokka, though, wasn't prepared to give up that easily. He spent the next few days trying to wear down Toph's resolution. However, even he had to admit defeat the day before the wedding was to take place.

"Okay, fine, marry Iroh," he told her resignedly. "Be the Fire Lady and have Fire Nation babies. At least with you around we can be sure that these guys aren't going to try to conquer the world again."

She laughed in spite of herself. "Oh, Sokka! You're a great friend and I love you! And I'm going to miss going adventuring with our gang and I want to thank you for always being so great!" Tears started to form in her eyes. "And I'll miss Appa, too, and Momo and – and," she finally couldn't speak anymore. She began crying in earnest.

"Hey," he smiled and took her into his arms. "Earthbenders don't cry. You know I love you, too." He placed a soft kiss on her forehead.

Toph suddenly gave a little gasp and fixed her unseeing eyes on where Zuko stood watching the two of them. He had walked in on them and he had heard the last thing that Sokka had said. "Sokka, could you leave me alone to speak with Zuko?" she asked. Her voice trembled slightly.

"Huh? Why?" he wanted to know.

"Leave us, peasant," Zuko ordered.

"Hey, you jerk -" Before Sokka could make things worse, Toph moved him out of the room with her Earthbending and blocked the door.

"It isn't what you think," she told him.

"Oh?" His tone was deadly calm. "And what do I think?"

"Sokka's one of my best friends."

"I'm sure he is." He suddenly exploded. "Have you no shame? You dare to dishonor my Uncle in his own house the day before you are to marry him? You let that – commoner – put his hands on you!"

"You jerk!" Toph shouted in outrage. "You know that it was nothing like that! How dare you accuse me – Why don't you just say why you're really upset?" she challenged him.

"I don't know what you're talking about!" he shouted back.

Toph's anger left her and her face crumpled. She looked very young and vulnerable all of a sudden. "I'm talking about that day," she whispered, "when you held my hand and made me feel warm. How your heart started beating faster. Tell me, why did your heart beat faster?"

"I don't know," he spoke in a whisper, too.

"You do," she insisted. "Tell me."

"I – I can't. You're marrying my Uncle."

She walked up to him and reached out to touch his face. She felt for the scar that had distorted not only his features but also his soul. "No," she said softly. "This is the real reason. You think that because of this, you only deserve pain."

"Pain is all I have ever felt," he told her.

"But you don't have to feel it anymore."

He took her hand away from his face. "But you're still marrying my Uncle," he reminded her brokenly.

"She doesn't have to."

They were both startled upon hearing Iroh's voice. The old man was watching them along with the Avatar, Katara and Sokka. He had an extremely pleased smile on his face.

"Nephew," he said, "I have a confession to make."

The end