Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar. I'm merely borrowing Mike and Bryan's phenomenal characters and bending them to my will.
Thanks: To my longsuffering beta, who can never seem to get any rest because I keep pestering her with fic. You know I love you.
Aang looked out at the endless crowd before him and felt every muscle in his fourteen year old body go inexplicably rigid. His ceremonial robes suddenly felt too tight and ridiculously heavy. The unprecedented heat that rapidly inundated his slim form caused him to feel lightheaded and out of breath. Worse yet, when he opened his mouth to address the extravagantly adorned throng of people, to recite the sacred words he had spent more than a month preparing and practicing, he found that he could not utter a single syllable.
That was not a good thing, as speaking was the very point of his existence right then. At the moment, it was his sole purpose for being, the exact reason he stood before them all. In the most literal of senses, the show could not go on without him. After all, he was acting as officiate for Zuko and Mai's wedding. A royal wedding, a national event, a historical occasion and Aang stood, not only paralyzed with fear, but he also could not recall the vows to save his life. Horrified and dismayed, he looked to Zuko and Mai, who were regarding him with expectant and mildly concerned smiles. The sheer panic on his face swiftly became evident to them.
He favored the bride and groom with a wan smile. "Hi there," he whispered needlessly, clearly at a loss.
His gauche and rather random greeting served to alarm Mai more than a little bit. Belying the nameless dread filling her chest right then, she fixed Aang with a small smile. "Aren't you going to get started?" she asked from behind the flash of her teeth. "We're kind of waiting on you."
Likewise, Aang answered from behind his own smile. "Yeah…about that…"
"What?" Mai groaned.
"There's just a small problem," Aang informed her in a low tone, mentally preparing himself for the explosion that was certainly coming. "I don't want you to panic, but…I've kind of forgotten what I'm supposed to say."
"You what?" Zuko balked from behind his own plastic grin, careful to keep up his happy appearance. "What do you mean you've forgotten? It's my wedding day! The whole point is for you to remember!"
"I know that," Aang replied defensively. "You don't have to yell at me."
"I'm not yelling," Zuko denied. He looked over to his flustered bride-to-be. "I'm not yelling. Mai, am I yelling?"
"Does it matter?" she asked. She darted her eyes out at the crowd. "People are staring at us, Zuko."
"Of course, they're staring," her future husband agreed emphatically. "They came here today to witness our nuptials, not watch us stand here and smile at each like lunatics! Do something, Aang!"
"I'm trying!" came the young Avatar's aggravated reply.
"I told you I didn't want to do this," Aang hissed at him.
"It's a little too late to back out now," Zuko hissed back.
Beyond their unfolding drama of impassioned whispers, the crowd was beginning to get antsy. Some guests began to fidget while others began whispering supposition over what the holdup might be. Still others were speculating on whether or not the Firelord had changed his mind. Sokka, on the other hand, proved to be more obvious in his concern. He began a loud, conspicuous coughing, asking between his affected hacking, "What's…going…on?" Unfortunately, his concerned efforts were met with a vicious elbow to the side from his sister. The Water Tribe siblings exchanged threatening glares while Aang and Zuko continued to bicker in whispered tones. At one point, Mai actually sighed and began contemplating the tips of her manicured nails.
A hushed murmur began to reverberate among the throng of guests, growing progressively louder until it seemed like a low, buzzing hum that echoed up to the rafters of the grand ballroom. Still, even with the growing restlessness of the guests, Aang couldn't recall the vows. The crowd seemed to expand and retract before him in blurring waves and, for a brief second, his world seemed to tilt and spin. He actually thought he might pass out. That prospect was absolutely unacceptable because Zuko would most assuredly kill him.
On the fuzzy edges of his awareness, Aang could see that the ceremony was quickly becoming a fiasco. Sokka was gesticulating at him wildly and Katara regarding him with sweet concern. He could tell she was struggling with whether or not she should come to his rescue or remain where she was. Aang was also aware of Suki, sandwiched between Sokka and a giggling Toph, slumped low in her seat, as if to say, "I'm not with these people." Toph was the only one who seemed to be enjoying herself, though she did make some effort to muffle her hysterical giggles behind her hands. Worst of all were the looks on Zuko and Mai's faces, an odd mix of horror, bemusement and longsuffering.
"Will you just say something?" Zuko hissed in exasperation.
At last, the urgency in Zuko's tone seemed to snap Aang from his stupor, though it wasn't much of an improvement. Panicked, the young Avatar blurted out the first words that sprang into his head. "Marriage is good!"
The second he spoke, a dramatic quiet settled over the assembled crowd and several hundred pairs of eyes ricocheted to his face simultaneously. Aang's stage fright surged anew and he thought for one horrifying moment that he would throw up. He bit down against the urge to be sick and forced himself to remain calm. The beleaguered bride and groom surveyed him with wary stares, unable to decide whether they should be relieved that he finally spoke up or filled with dread for what he would say next. They learned very quickly it would be the latter.
With the crowd hanging on with bated breath for his next words, Aang followed up with a very lame, very lackluster, "…and nice." Zuko repressed his shuddering groan of humiliation. "And we should all do it!" Aang added enthusiastically, only to screw his eyes shut when he realized that the statement sounded different aloud than it had in his head. "Wait! I don't mean do it like do it. We're not talking about that, not that there's anything wrong with doing it because that's very healthy and spiritual and it's definitely a part of marriage…"
"Just kill me now," Mai uttered dryly.
"What I mean to say is…" Aang amended valiantly, "Zuko and Mai are here before you today to pledge their lives in a spiritual union. It is a sacred event that should be entered into soberly and regularly…ugh no…that's wrong. You don't want to make a habit of getting married because…that's not good. I meant reverently and that means with the highest degree of respect and honor."
"Oh, good grief," Zuko groaned under his breath.
"I'm sorry," Aang whispered contritely. He turned an apologetic stare out at the guests. "My apologies, ladies and gentlemen, this is my first time doing something like this and I'm very nervous…" He slanted his gaze to Zuko and Mai. "These people are two of my dearest and closest friends," he went on poignantly, "and I love them so much and I'm so happy for them. And that's why we're all assembled here today…because we're all happy for them and we know how happy they make each other."
As a ringing applause went up in the wake of Aang's impromptu but heartfelt speech, Mai hissed to him, "Okay, let's just hurry up and skip to the end before something else goes wrong."
It wasn't a perfect execution by any means. Aang stumbled through the first portion of the vows, so badly in fact that Zuko and Mai had to coach him through, a fact that incurred laughter from the guests and hot, embarrassed blushes from Aang. Fortunately and much to Mai and Zuko's everlasting gratitude, by the middle of the ceremony, the young Avatar finally hit his stride and was able to recite the hallowed words on his own. When Zuko and Mai said their final "We do's" and faced the crowd for the first time as Firelord Zuko and Princess Mai of the Fire Nation, Aang was considerably more relaxed, his first faltering moments into the ceremony almost completely forgotten.
After she had finally been declared the Firelord's wedded wife, it seemed absolutely fitting then that Mai should turn towards Aang and tease with a rare, wry smile, "Well, that was an interesting wedding ceremony. Thanks."
Strangely, her rather laconic declaration served to dispel the lingering tension following Aang's halting presentation through the vows. Her eyes twinkling with burgeoning mirth, she looked at Aang and then at Zuko as a sudden, bubbling snicker burst forth from her lips. Zuko, likewise, found himself struggling to choke back his own laughter. Despite his best efforts, it escaped him in staccato snorts of breath. They both looked to Aang again, who appeared horrified by their reactions, flustered and…also on the verge of laughter himself. Aang's entire body trembled with suppressed chuckles. Unable to hold back any longer, the three of them slumped together, holding on to each other's shoulders for support as they succumbed to an uncontainable fit of absolute hilarity.
It was certainly not the manner anyone had expected the Firelord's wedding to end, but no one could deny the event had been a most unforgettable occasion.
"You bombed. You blew. You sucked gopher-chicken eggs!"
"Sokka!" Katara hissed in reprimand, reaching across the table to slap him across the shoulder. "Stop it! Zuko and Mai have obviously let it go! Why can't you?"
In the wake of their disastrous nuptials, Aang was surprised to learn that, not only weren't Zuko and Mai furious with him, but that they were good-humored enough to tease him about it. The seven friends sat gathered together, the newlyweds in the center with Suki and Sokka on one side and Katara, Aang and Toph on the opposite side, at the royal table usually designated exclusively for the Firelord and his princess, bantering and joking, as if it had not been months since the last time they were all together. In the fifteen months since the war had ended, the teens had become as close as family and, consequently, they related to one another that way.
"Guys, I'm really, really sorry," Aang apologized for what seemed like the hundredth time. "I practiced and practiced before. I don't know what happened."
"It's okay, Aang," Zuko told him. "Forget about it. Everyone suffers from stage fright from time to time. It was a big crowd."
"Though it was a little much when you started rambling on about 'doing it,'" Mai interjected sardonically. "Yeah…I could have lived without that part."
"Well, I thought that part was hysterical!" Toph crowed. "That was the highlight! I couldn't catch my breath, I was laughing so hard!"
"Thank you, Toph," Aang deadpanned. "Never let it be said that your comforting skills aren't outstanding."
"Seriously, it wasn't that bad," Katara whispered sweetly, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He favored her with a hopeful smile as she continued, "You really pulled it together at the end. I was so proud of you, Aang."
"Yeah, you did pull it together at the end," Suki agreed. "It almost made up for that terrible start. It was like watching a landslide…it's horrifying but, at the same time, impossible to look away."
Aang groaned in consternation, dropping his head forward in his hands before slumping low in his chair. He pulled his collar high around the lower half of his face in an obvious attempt to hide. Katara growled at Suki. "Not helping," she chided in mild exasperation before attempting to coerce Aang to uncurl himself.
"It's not a big deal, Aang," Zuko reiterated with a rare laugh. "Besides…I think I'm glad it happened the way it did."
Skeptical and uncertain, Aang peeked at his friend from between his fingers. "You're glad?" he uttered in disbelief.
"Nothing in my life ever ran smoothly before this point," Zuko considered with an offhand shrug. "It's been a struggle for as long as I can remember, one fiasco after another. Why should my wedding day be any different?"
"That's great, Zuko," Aang replied, clearly uncomforted by the response. "I'm glad I could keep that depressing tradition going for you."
"You're not very good at this, are you?" Katara asked Zuko derisively.
"The point is," Zuko emphasized, ignoring both Aang and Katara's rolling sarcasm, "what matters is the end result. The hardships I endured through my life made me strong and having this afternoon go off as imperfectly as it did made me appreciate what truly mattered." He paused to sweep up Mai's hand and favor her with an enamored smile. "Today, I married the woman I love. I pledged to spend the rest of my life with her. In that regard, Aang, you pulled the ceremony off perfectly."
"And in the most humiliating, embarrassing way possible," Toph tacked on irreverently. "Way to go." Aang groaned again, but this time he threw a daggered glance at Toph as well. Sensing his sour look, Toph shrugged, clearly unaffected. "I'm just saying."
"Aang, if it makes you feel any better, Zuko and I wouldn't change our decision to ask you," Mai told him.
"You wouldn't?" Aang replied in outright surprise. "Even after I made such a mess of things? It was a disaster!"
"You're right. It was a disaster," Zuko agreed flatly. "But, I'm glad you did it. After our complicated history and everything it took for us to become friends, it meant a lot to me that you stood up for us today and I'll never forget it and not because you bombed…"
"…which you did," Sokka inserted, earning yet another slap from his aggravated sister.
"Will you stop making him feel bad?" Katara snapped.
"Yes, you were terrible up there," Zuko plodded on to a beet red Aang, "but that hardly mattered. You were there for me this afternoon, on one of the biggest days of my life…and that's what I'll remember, Aang."
Aang slowly uncurled himself and regarded Zuko with an amazed stare. "Wow, Zuko…" he murmured, clearly moved. "That's like the most awesome thing you've ever said to me."
"Yeah…yeah, don't let it go to your head," his friend groused. "It's my wedding day. I'm entitled to one sentimental moment. I had it and now it's done."
They were all laughing at Aang's disappointed frown when Ursa approached the table and hugged the bride and groom from behind. "Congratulations, you two," she whispered emotionally. "It was a beautiful ceremony. You both looked absolutely gorgeous up there. I had tears in my eyes the entire time. And Aang…" She carefully phrased her next words to him as she was met with his boyishly hopeful expression. "You were…you were very sweet," she finally settled for, causing the table to erupt in renewed laughter. "It wasn't that bad," Ursa quickly reassured a pouting Aang, though the twitching of her lips belied that statement entirely. "Look at it this way…people will be talking about this wedding for years to come."
"Hmm…I always did want to be infamous," Mai considered with dry amusement. Impulsively, she raised her jeweled goblet in a toast. "To infamy!" Her husband and friends followed suit.
"To infamy," they all chorused laughingly.
While she, Toph, Suki and Katara chuckled over the toast and Sokka continued ribbing Aang mercilessly for being at the center of it, Ursa bent low to whisper in her son's ear, "Your uncle has the band prepared. We're waiting on you and Mai, Zuko."
"I don't know, Mom," Zuko hedged uncomfortably, pausing to make sure Mai was duly occupied before he continued. "What if this is a bad idea? I don't want to make a fool of myself."
"Zuko, you've been practicing for months now," his mother reassured him softly. "Besides, you're very fluid with your firebending forms. Ballroom dancing isn't so different. Mai isn't going to be anything but delighted and surprised."
"Mai has never been 'delighted' a day in her life, Mom," Zuko deadpanned.
"Well, she's going to come as close to it as she can get this day because you're going to knock her off her feet," Ursa predicted with a smile. "Figuratively speaking, of course."
"Haha, Mom," Zuko retorted grumpily. "Is that Komo's humor or did you come up with that all on your own?"
"When did you become such a sourpuss?" his mother admonished with a laughing smile. "And such a smart-mouthed sourpuss at that…where did my sweet little boy go?" Before he could launch into a round of adolescent complaining over that, Ursa sandwiched his cheeks between her hands and ordered firmly, "Now, get off your behind and ask your wife to dance with you."
"Mother, I'm feeling very pressured right now," Zuko complained petulantly. "I don't like it."
She ignored his consternation and pressed a quick kiss on his cheek. "I'll let the band know you're ready. Have fun." Before sauntering off, she gave his cheek an affectionate pinch, which only incurred a serrated groan of frustration from her dour son.
"I'm telling you, I don't like it," he mumbled again under his breath, though that time it hardly mattered because his mother was already well out of earshot. Not that it would have made a difference had she been in earshot anyway, Zuko thought mordantly.
"So what was that about?" Mai asked when she noticed the grumbling scowl Zuko was pitching in his mother's direction. "Komo issues again?"
"Eh, I wish," Zuko pouted.
"What?" Mai guffawed in a short, laughing breath at his cryptic reply. However, before she could question him further about it, the band began to strike up a slow and lilting love ballad. The mellow sounds of Iroh's tsungi horn drifted over to them. "I guess it's time," Mai sighed. She flicked a glance over at their unsuspecting friends. "Which couple should we send out there as our sacrificial goat?" she teased wickedly.
"I…I was thinking that maybe…maybe it should be us," Zuko stammered.
Mai gaped at him. "Stop kidding around."
Quite suddenly, Zuko found himself changing his mind about the whole thing. Perhaps, it was the utter contentment he felt at that moment or Mai's unimaginable beauty right then, but…he wanted to dance with her. He wanted to twirl her around the marbled floors and show her off as his eternal bride. Swallowing down the trepidation that was suddenly rising in his chest and causing his knees to knock beneath his royal robes, Zuko held out a hand to his new bride. "Would you do me the honor?" he requested formally, nodding towards the dance floor.
Her reaction the second time wasn't any more enthusiastic than the first. "You're joking."
"Not even a little," Zuko replied. He nodded towards the dance floor. "Come on."
With stubborn recalcitrance, Mai folded her arms over her chest and regarded him with a mutinous expression. "I'm not going out there."
"Will you trust me?"
"But Zuko…" Mai reasoned in near speechlessness, "you don't dance. You can't dance. And we talked about this, remember? We were going to forgo that whole tradition altogether. We are our own people. We will not be slaves to expectation."
"You don't forgo tradition, Mai," Zuko argued patiently, basically repeating the same words his mother had told him when he had informed her that he and Mai would not be dancing at their wedding months before.
"You do if certain humiliation awaits you," Mai countered with a wry tilt of her mouth. "Didn't we get enough of that earlier?"
"Will I never live that down?" Aang groaned in the background. Zuko and Mai barely had time to roll their eyes over Aang's woebegone comment when Katara's hushed rebuke to him about eavesdropping came soon after. "But how can it be eavesdropping if they're sitting right beside me?" he complained.
"I think they should be the goat," Mai decided, nodding over at Aang and Katara. "Besides, Aang kind of deserves it."
"Are you kidding?" Zuko snorted softly. "That's hardly punishment for Aang. He'd lap up the attention."
"You know…that hurts me," Aang interjected, only to be admonished by Katara once again about the merits of staying out of other people's business.
"So you'd rather punish us instead?" Mai balked. "What a brilliant plan, Zuko."
Endeared by her blazing sarcasm , Zuko fixed Mai with a besotted smile. "I'd rather show off the most beautiful lady in the room," he countered sweetly. He held his hand out to her again. "Please…my wife, dance with me…"
"Don't think for one second I find you charming," Mai told him, finally taking hold of his hand. As he led her out on to the empty dance floor, she added with an irreverent smile, "And don't let this go to your head. When you beg, I feel sorry for you. That's all."
"I realize that," he replied, straight-faced though his eyes were dancing with mischievous light. "Your benevolence is much appreciated."
Zuko had expected that, when they took to the floor, he would be acutely aware of the hundreds of eyes watching them. He was surprised to discover that, instead of tripping all over himself with self-consciousness, he was absorbed completely in his new bride. As they began to circle one another in the ceremonial dance, Zuko found that he could not stop looking at her. To him, Mai had always been especially beautiful, but right then, right at that very second…she was radiant. She was the embodiment of everything he had never known he wanted or needed. She was his future, his anchor, his partner in life. Zuko had never been happier. He had never been more in love with her than he was at that moment.
From the banquet table, their friends watched them with expressions ranging from envy to bewilderment to outright panic. Katara leaned her cheek upon her fist and watched Zuko and Mai twirl fluidly about the dance floor with an enamored sigh. "They look so beautiful together, don't they?" she espoused romantically. "I love weddings."
"Me too," Aang agreed in an equally romantic tone, but his eyes were trained directly on Katara and not on the newlyweds when he said it.
"Blech," Sokka grunted. "This whole thing has turned Zuko into a sentimental pile of goo. His masculinity is being sucked away right before our very eyes!" That chauvinist comment earned him a forceful punch in the shoulder from his girlfriend. "Hey!" he cried in affronted pain.
"I think it's sweet that Zuko isn't bothering to hide the way he feels about Mai," Suki argued tartly. "He's totally in love with her and he doesn't care that everyone knows it. It's romantic."
"Well, don't be expecting that kind of stuff from me when we get married," Sokka grumbled.
"And who said I was marrying you in the first place?" Suki sniffed haughtily. "Overconfident much?"
"Frankly, it all seems like a waste of time to me," Toph inserted in an unimpressed tone. "Zuko and Mai were already practically married anyway. Why go through all the pomp and circumstance of an actual wedding? It just seems like a hassle."
"It depends on how you look at it, Toph," Aang considered. "I think a wedding is just a way of making public the private commitment two people have already made to each other. It's like affirming their pledges to each other before their family and friends and the spirits themselves."
"Wow…when you put it like that, Aang, it sounds even more romantic," Katara commented softly.
Toph stifled a yawn. "Yeah, like I said," she reiterated, "waste of time."
Aang and Katara hardly heard her, however, because Aang was already holding his hand out to Katara in an invitation to dance. Already, the floor was beginning to crowd with other couples besides the bride and groom. As Aang led Katara by the hand into the midst of the dancers, he was smiling into her eyes, hardly aware of his surroundings at all. They fell into easy rhythm with their fellow dancers, swirling and swaying in time with the music.
"So tell me the truth," Aang insisted softly as they fell together and apart and then together again. "Did I really do okay this afternoon or was I really awful?"
Katara bit her lower lip as she circled behind him and back again. "You were really awful," she confessed after a pause.
"Great," Aang grunted in disappointment.
"But, you know what?" Katara asked when she noted his crestfallen expression. "What I told you before was true. I'm still proud of you, Aang."
Her reply shocked him so much that he stopped dancing altogether. "You are?"
Katara came to a halt in front of him, her expression soft with love and admiration. "Yes, I am," she confirmed softly. "I could tell you were really nervous and scared of messing up, but, in the end, you pulled it together beautifully."
He was warmed by her words even while he knew they came from a skewed viewpoint, and he told her so. "I think you're biased, Katara," Aang whispered affectionately.
"I think you're right," she agreed with an impenitent smile, gathering him closer for a lingering kiss. "But that's what happens…when you're in love."
On the other side of the great hall, Suki caught hold of Sokka's collar when he would have charged out onto the dance floor to forcibly set Aang and Katara apart. "Hold on a minute there," she told him when he growled at her for thwarting his efforts. "That has nothing to do with you. Stay out of it."
"What do you mean 'stay out of it'? They're making out right there in the middle of everyone!" Sokka cried stridently.
"Sokka, calm down," Suki soothed him.
"Look at them!" Sokka pressed, framing Suki's head and directing her gaze over to where Aang and Katara stood wrapped in each other's arms and seemingly oblivious to the fact they were not alone. "They must be stopped! They're making a spectacle of themselves!"
"It's hardly a spectacle," Suki refuted in a mild tone. "Nobody's even paying attention, except you. Besides, they're just kissing, Sokka. They're in love, remember? You know how it is," she added in a purr, snuggling closer to him, "when you're in love."
Despite himself, Sokka was lulled by her proximity. "I'm just looking out for her, you know…" he grumbled in explanation.
"Of course you are," his girlfriend agreed. "You're a good brother. You're loyal and protective and honorable, and I love you for it."
Having been successfully defused of all his bluster, Sokka mumbled, "Well, when you're right, you're right." He completely missed Suki's laughing eye roll when he added, "…I love you too."
"You do realize…they say actions speak louder than words," Suki prodded him sweetly.
"Is that what they say??" he teased, his annoyance dissipating with alarming ease as he was met with her beguiling smile, "…I wonder what actions I should consider then…"
"I'll give you a hint," Suki giggled, puckering her lips dramatically.
Sokka tweaked her nose, causing it to crinkle in disappointment. "Is that what you had in mind?" he teased her.
"You're hilarious. Try again…" Suki laughed.
He nuzzled against her mouth. "Or did you mean something more like this…"
They were in the middle of exchanging several soft kisses when Toph groaned her everlasting disgust. "Must you guys be continually mauling each other in my presence?" she whined. "If it's not you and Suki, then it's Aang and Katara or Zuko and Mai. I can't take it anymore! Blech!"
"Well, it is a big room, Toph," Sokka suggested somewhat distractedly as he and Suki drifted in again for another kiss. "Why don't you go and mingle or something?"
As Toph stomped away with an offended huff, she received mild satisfaction when she heard Sokka and Suki's surprised yelps as they were unceremoniously pitched into the air by her unexpected earthbended spikes. "Yep," Toph laughed to herself when they landed with audible thuds behind her and pained groans. "I still got it."
Unfortunately, her self-satisfaction didn't last long. It was no fun being the wallflower while all of her friends were dancing or in some darkened corner making out. In the past, Toph had never given much thought to any of those things. Boys and relationships in general tended to bore her. With the exception of her male friends, particularly Sokka, she didn't see what all the hoopla was over the male sex at all. Lately, however, she had been finding herself mildly curious about that hoopla. What was it about being in love that turned people into blubbering idiots?
She was sitting there in her own private corner contemplating just that question when she sensed his presence. Her lips turned in a smile even before he spoke to her. "Is this the corner of the room designated for those without dance partners?" General Iroh teased lightly.
"Well, if it is," Toph drawled laughingly. "You're in the right place." She scooted over a bit to allow him room on the bench on which she sat. When he eased down beside her with dramatic grunts and groans and complaints about his creaking body. Laughing at his antics, Toph asked him, "Aren't you supposed to be playing music right now?"
"I thought I would take a break to congratulate my nephew," Iroh told her. "Is that allowed?" When Toph conceded with a laughing nod, he fixed a fond smile over in Zuko's direction. "He is very happy today."
"Yeah, he is," Toph agreed with a brief flash of nostalgia.
"Mai is his perfect match," Iroh contemplated as he continued to watch the newlyweds pivot gracefully across the dance floor. "I think, perhaps, they were made for each other."
"Ugh," Toph groaned. "Now you sound like Aang."
"What?" Iroh asked, sensing the disgust in her tone. "You don't believe in true love?"
"Yeah, I believe in love," Toph considered. "You couldn't have my group of friends and not believe in it. As far as believing there's a perfect mate out there for everyone though…that's stretching it for me."
"It is something you have to experience yourself," Iroh told her. "When I fell in love with my wife…I felt she completed something inside me that I hadn't even realized was missing. She changed me. We changed each other. We made each other better and stronger. Real love does that. That kind of love only happens once in a lifetime, I suppose," he finished sadly.
"Blech," Toph balked. "Then I'll pass on all that real love stuff, thank you very much. I don't need anybody changing me. I like myself just fine the way I am."
Iroh boomed a laugh at her reply. "I don't mean that the other person changes you, but that you learn from each other. You grow individually and with each other."
"Eh…it's not for me," Toph dismissed lightly.
"You don't think so?" Iroh queried.
"Don't get me wrong," Toph supplied quickly, "I think love is great and everything, but…honestly? It turns even the best and smartest people into flaming idiots. I mean, take Zuko's mom, for instance. She was totally in love with a psychotic madman and wasted years of her life for him when he didn't care about her at all…no offense to your late brother, General Iroh," she added in conclusion.
"None taken," Iroh countered with a chuckle.
"I mean, I realize not all love stories work out that way," Toph went on, "but, traveling with Aang and Katara this last year has really opened my eyes to a lot of things. As much as they love each other, those two have a lot of misunderstandings and I mean a lot and even though they work it out in the end, sometimes I wonder what if they don't? What if they can't? What if the next fight they have is the fight that ends it for good? Then their whole relationship is tanked, everything they meant to each other is just gone. It doesn't seem worth the risk to me."
"Yes, but the misunderstandings make you stronger," Iroh told her. "There is no glory without risk. There is no happiness without conflict. There is no joy without struggle. There is no success without sacrifice. When you learn these lessons in a relationship, you learn to love with the greatest part of yourself. You learn what love truly is."
"Again…" Toph reiterated sardonically. "I'll pass on that."
"I must admit that I admire your conviction, Toph," Iroh commended her. "Not many your age would have such a clear understanding of what they want and expect out of life. You obviously know what you want and what will make you happy. My nephew struggled for many years before he figured that out and even I was a young man before I completely understood myself that way. You are a very wise young woman to have discovered the secret in the bloom of your youth."
"You really think that?" Toph asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep the hopeful edge out of her tone.
"I really do," Iroh insisted.
"And you don't think I'm strange because I don't want to fall in love or anything like that?"
"I think you're in transition," Iroh replied carefully. "And I do not believe you will always feel that way. You will find someone who compliments you, just as your friends have and you will fall in love. Just wait. You don't choose love. It chooses you."
"Yeah, I guess that could be true," Toph replied, her blind gaze drifting over to where she knew Sokka and Suki cuddled in the shadows. She forced away the hurt and longing that came with the knowledge and shrugged her shoulders in dismissal. "I'm just not all that sure if it matters when it does."
Zuko surprised them all with the decision to have the gang's portrait commissioned. "This is hardly traditional," he explained as he, Mai, his mother and uncle and all his friends assembled before the royal painter, "and that's exactly why I want to do it. We'll start a new tradition." He paused to trade a small smile with Mai. "We'll start better ones."
"But what about you and Mai?" Aang protested. "Don't you want to have your wedding portrait done instead?"
"Yes. And we will," Zuko assured him. "But, I want to have a portrait of my family done as well…and that's what all of you are to me. You're my family."
"You know, Zuko," Sokka commented as the artist began his fluid sketching of the group, "you didn't have to go through the trouble of commissioning an artist. I would have been more than happy to do it."
Seven pairs of eyes slid surreptitiously in Sokka's direction, weighing the benefits of that offer before eight voices chorused together in a simultaneous, unanimous and completely unreserved, "Nah."