Toph was surprised at just how much she was enjoying her visit to the Fire Nation. She had visited often since the war had ended, usually in the company of the Avatar or in her official capacity as a representative of the Earth Kingdom, but this was the first time she had visited just for the sake of visiting.
It had been Iroh's idea. He was worried about his nephew who had been making fewer and fewer trips to Ba Sing Se of late. He always claimed that it was due to his duties as Fire Lord, that there was some trade agreement, rebuilding project or obscure provincial festival that he just had to attend, but Toph knew it was because he just didn't want to come alone. Seeing Aang with Katara, Sokka with Suki, it just reminded him of what he'd lost. It also allowed him to avoid their questions…and his uncle's attempts at match-making.
She'd expected him to be miserable, it was one of the first emotions that came to mind whenever she thought about him, but he'd surprised her. He'd been delighted to see them both, and though his duties did keep him busy for most of the day, he was always pleasant company when he joined them, which he did as much as he could. She found that she really enjoyed her time with him, but then she always had.
Zuko was much more relaxed than she remembered, almost playful at times. Given what she was sensing from his councillors this was not usual behaviour, though they seemed to approve. Maybe he really needed a friend, someone he could talk to about everything and nothing in his gilded cage.
When he had invited her, and just her, to have tea with him she had happily accepted. She had expected something relaxed and companionable, like they shared with the others at the Jasmine Dragon, but he was strangely formal. He had bowed and gently taken her hand, leading her out into the palace gardens and into what she assumed was an ornate pagoda. She couldn't see a lot of it, it being made of painted wood. But as soon as her bare feet touched its wooden floor her eyes widened. Everything was dusted with a fine layer of earth, from the statues to the flower arrangements, even the table had a sparse scattering of her native element. He'd certainly gone to a lot of trouble…
He guided her to her seat, and lay her hand on the table before taking his own seat across from her at the low, marble table. It was simply but elegantly decorated, a single fire-lily sat on an elaborately folded piece of silk, a scroll of fine parchment lay unrolled beside it. A small earthenware tray sat between them which she assumed held the tea items.
He began to make the tea himself with very precise and deliberate movements, measuring and stirring, adding a bit of this and a bit of that, whisking the brew with a bamboo brush. He didn't say a word and he was taking forever…and Toph was beginning to lose her patience.
"Will you just pour the damn tea?!" She snapped.
Zuko stopped in mid-whisk, and by the way his heartbeat and breathing changed she knew she'd done something wrong. The way he rose shakily to his feet, turned and walked away only confirmed her feeling.
The silence was deafening. Then she heard a low, sad sigh…Iroh…
"What did I do?" She asked, truly concerned. She had experienced Zuko's temper, his despondency, but this…she couldn't even fathom the depth of the emotions she'd brought out in him.
"I take it, young Toph, that you are not aware of the significance of the tea ceremony." He said as he sat down beside her, deliberately avoiding the seat Zuko had just vacated.
"Ceremony…?" She echoed with a frown. "I thought he was being overly formal…"
"Every movement, the placement of every object, has a meaning." He explained. "It is designed to show how much one deeply respects the other…and…when it is performed by one young person to another…" He picked up the fire-lily and gently pressed it into her hand. "…it is often to convey their…intent…"
The perfume of the flower, mixed with the aromatic scent of the tea, filled her senses as Iroh's words turned around in her head. There had always been a bond between them, from the time he'd arrived at the Western Air Temple, begging forgiveness and offering his help to defeat his own father. It had only strengthened over the years, and only now did she realise how deep that bond had become.
"Spirits…" She whispered. "I just rejected him, didn't I?"
"There is no doubt that that is what he believes." Iroh said.
"But that's not…I didn't know…" Now she understood what he was feeling. She turned her face towards Iroh. "What do I do?"
He lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. "That, dear child, is dependant entirely upon what is in your heart. You already know what's in his."
He stared into the waters of the turtleduck pond...it had always been his sanctuary, his refuge from the world when it became too painful. The green and golden creatures had glided over to him as soon as he'd arrived but he had brought nothing to share with them, he was glad that they stayed with him regardless. Maybe they sensed what he was feeling and were offering him what comfort they could from their mere presence.
He tensed at his own name, and the turtleducks ruffled their feathers at the intrusion.
She sat down beside him with a heavy sigh. Iroh had told her where to find him, and how to get there. The rest he'd left up to her.
"Zuko…" She repeated as she searched for the right words. She'd hurt him so much, so easily, she had to set things right.
"If you don't…" He began. She pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him, unaware of what her touch was doing to him. He closed his eyes to it, relishing it lest it was all he ever got. His chin dropped to his chest as her hand dropped to her lap.
She took a deep breath. "I've lived a very sheltered life. My parents kept me hidden from the world, and kept the world hidden from me. And despite all I experienced and learned while travelling with Aang, there are some things that I still know nothing about. Like tea ceremonies for instance…"
She sighed, unaware that his wide eyes were now on her.
"I thought we were just having tea." She said. "Just like we have countless times before. I didn't know there was anything more to it…until Iroh told me…"
"Oh…" He said quietly, his eyes turning back to his feathered friends who seemed to be watching events unfold with great interest. "And now that you do…?"
The hope in his voice brought a smile to her face. She slid closer to him, her hip butting up against his.
"What do you think you dope?" She grinned before punching him soundly in the upper arm.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and all related characters are © of Bryan Konietzko, Michael DiMartino, Nickelodeon and Viacom International Inc