Iroh felt certain that, were Koh still alive, it would be almost embarrassing for the warmonger to learn how quickly his hundred-year scheme had come to a close.
The incapacitated elder lay in a hospital bed in the medical wing of his country's military headquarters. Though he had initially declined the offer of a private room, a certain young Waterbender girl had stubbornly insisted he not be exposed to the rapt attentions and persistent entreaties of his fellow war veterans. This last was a title that now applied to virtually every male of the Fire Nation between the ages of 16 and 50. Even a week following an official armistice between all nations, Iroh was still dubbed too severely injured to risk exerting himself by constantly regaling his well-wishers and admirers with a first-hand account of his efforts to end the hostilities.
As he continued his recuperation, the Fire Nation's hero pondered whether or not he should have expressed greater restraint around some of the more comely female well-wishers and nurses. I'm an old man, Iroh reflected while breathing in the air warmed by braziers to protect against the growing chill of autumn. Surely I am entitled to a bit of pleasurable company? As misfortune would have it, though, Katara had walked in on him precisely when he was receiving two admittedly chaste kisses on the cheek from a pair of ladies that just happened to be snuggled up in bed with him. It wasn't as if they weren't fully clothed, even, but his self-appointed physician had assumed an expression of cross exasperation and proceeded to shoo the disheartened maidens from the room. After that Iroh learned that he had been placed on a severely restricted visitation schedule.
The patient sighed. There were more ways to heal than one, he thought forlornly. A more experienced lady would know that. Perhaps he should consider making an unscheduled sojourn off the grounds to more… accommodating locales.
A sudden twinge of pain in his lungs served to dampen any such daydreams.
Iroh settled back into the cushions to gaze up at the peaked ceiling, breathing slowly and evenly as he had been instructed. The gentle fragrance of burning incense lent a hypnotic air of recuperation to every lungful.
It also made him sweat slightly, a pall of lingering fear from recent events. The specifics of his nightmares always faded fast, though he knew they would return. Some people always had to get in a parting shot.
Iroh was not unmindful of his situation. Nor was he ungrateful. In point of fact, he knew he was lucky to simply be alive.
For a while there, he had felt certain that his time had come. Even with Toph's expert mending of his broken physique, his own admittedly amateur healing efforts on her had combined with the long days of travel following the culmination of their dangerous quest to result in a perilous state of health for the depleted nobleman. After a few hours he had lapsed into a fitful state of fevered sleep, plagued by visions of death and bloodshed that seemed to span before his own life, and beyond. There were monstrous entities and disturbing vistas filled with the most savage displays of gut-wrenching torment he had ever seen. Crimes committed, secrets buried, lies upon lies compounding together to form a blanket of falsehoods that served to keep whole nations cowed and bereft of any real hope. All this he saw, until it had seemed that there could be no chance of retaining his sanity and the only logical choice was to descend into a poisoned pit of madness. In doing so, he would be protected from the insidious images that plagued his every moment, whether waking or sleeping, he could no longer tell.
At the very instant when he was about to take the first step on that twisted path, he found his head was being raised, and cool water was offered for him to drink. He did so automatically, draining the stone cup. A measure of sense seemed to come back to his surroundings, and Iroh felt a damp rag being placed upon his fevered brow. Swaying over him was a stalwart young girl's face, blind eyes filled with tears.
"I don't care what you're feeling right now," he heard her whisper fiercely. "Don't you dare die, old man! If you do, I'll go into the Spirit World and drag you back out, and then I'm gonna pound your sorry butt. Don't think I can't do it, because we both know I can!"
That was true. She had done it. And the thought of her doing it to him made Iroh laugh.
The brief moment of self-deprecating levity changed something for him.
After this the illness seemed to lessen slightly, and the downtrodden patient started to take more impressions from their surroundings. When he first felt capable of speaking, he almost ran them off the road upon asking Toph how long he had been out. She quickly apologized for the near-accident, but in her telling features was a look of intense gratitude, along with pained relief. It made Iroh sad to think that she had been so worried about his condition. But there was something else he realized then.
Unfortunately his body chose that moment to pass out, so he did not have time to consider the implications of his epiphany.
It was over a day after leaving the graveyard of the spirits that Iroh suddenly awoke to a sensation of raw overwhelming health and power.
As far as he could tell, they were still traveling in Toph's ostrich-horseless carriage, somewhere in the rolling plains of the northern Earth Kingdom. No civilization of any sort to be found. For a time, he could not think of any reason for this abrupt about-face in regards to his health.
Then the son of fire turned his gaze skyward, and in the red glow of morning, he saw a crimson eye gazing unblinkingly down upon him.
After one hundred years, the harbinger of doom had returned.
Sozin's Comet flamed in the sky.
And somewhere out there, he knew the Firelord was facing the Avatar.
It was strange, because in spite of everything he knew and feared about this day, there was really only one thought in Iroh's mind.
Please don't die.
"A brother's love," he whispered.
Standing at the entrance to his sickroom was a short girl dressed in royal red.
"What are you mumbling about, Dragon-Breath?"
He sank back with a groan. At which point, Toph smiled and strolled leisurely over, settling herself on the side of the bed.
"I heard you chased off some of the nurses, and Katara is busy with family problems. So I thought, 'Let's head over there, see if he's rational.' And here you are talking to yourself." She clicked her teeth and gave a dismal shake of her head. "Guess I'll just have to recommend they cancel your release date."
Iroh peered at her with keen mistrust. "Are you certain Koh gave you back your face? Because you are behaving quite heartlessly."
The national hero of the Earth Kingdom flopped back, resting her hands on her stomach and crossing her legs to wave lazily. "Don't worry, I'm not going to do it. Your doctors are on board with this. We're all settled for the party tomorrow anyway, and I don't want to explain to everyone why one of the guests of honor didn't show up. I've got enough pests buzzing around me with all their questions."
Iroh chuckled. "I'm sure you do."
Since the cessation of hostilities and their return to the capitol, Toph was considered something of a darling among the Fire Nation populace. Her blindness brought out the mother in every woman over the age of 13, causing her to be subjected to an endless barrage of gifts, advice, and the unrequested services of maidservants trained in all sorts of embarrassing practices. Young men of a certain social standing were quick to pick up on her being the only daughter of the Earth Kingdom's wealthiest family, and for the first time in her life Toph had been forced to deal with the attentions of the opposite sex outside of a bone-jarring wrestling match. More than anything else, Iroh regretted not having been present when the tiny titan was first mobbed by an assemblage of glittering jewel-encrusted highborn sons. According to Zuko, their tough little Toph had turned several vivid shades of red before burying them all up to their chins in the floor and fleeing for the hills.
She was then apparently met by a cavalcade of travelers from all over the Fire Nation, many of whom were quick to note her resemblance to posters distributed among the war-weary populace detailing the ascension of a new Firelord, along with images of the people responsible for bringing the ancient war to a close. In spite of what one might expect, no prior amount of nationalist propaganda was enough to dispel appreciation for someone so… cute. It was common knowledge among the palace staff that new funds had been set up in hospitals around the country to see to the needs of the blind.
"I hope that you have found some time to yourself over the past few days," her bed-ridden comrade continued gently.
Toph only shrugged, then began chewing a hangnail. At last she sat up and turned to regard him.
"So, are you really feeling fit enough for this? I mean, you're not just running on comet juice now, are you? You aren't going to collapse as soon as it passes, right?"
He shook his head. "I have been well-cared for since our arrival. And besides, the comet will continue to shine for over a month from now. We have plenty of time for whatever your parents and I might have to discuss."
The heiress' chin jerked up. "I knew it! They HAVE been plotting with you about me! My dad said he was just paying his respects, but I KNEW something was up! You're all out to get me, aren't you?!"
"Whatever do you mean?" Iroh feigned hurt. "How could two distinguished gentlemen possibly have anything devious in mind? I only mentioned to his Wealthiness that I happen to have a handsome nephew of marriageable age only a few years older than you, and that the two of you might have bathed together on occasion."
Her jaw sagged. "IROH! WE DIDN'T…! YOU WOULDN'T…! I'M NOT…!"
And he burst out laughing, moments before Toph tackled him.
"You're joking!" she yelled, pulling his beard viciously. "You had better be joking, or I'm going to unbreak everything inside you I put back together on this trip!"
The target of her scandalized wrath merely laughed, then proceeded to untangle her tiny fists from his hair and place the fuming powerhouse back on the floor where she could see clearly.
"I told your father and mother that their daughter saved my life on more than one occasion, and that our current state of somewhat acrimonious ceasefire can be traced back to you, at least in my interpretation."
She kept her hands on one wrist, feeling for his heartbeat. "That's all?" Suspicion was written all over her face.
"No." His voice altered then, becoming serious. "I also told them that a marriage between our children would be completely moot, since I already consider you to be a member of my family." His hand came over hers. "And you should as well, Toph. It is because of you that I can look to the future with any hope. The stain upon my name has been completely washed away, and it could not have been done without you."
The head sank somewhat, gleaming black hair falling forward to cover her eyes, but Iroh thought he could pick out a tremor in her voice regardless.
"I… didn't tell you this earlier. Thought I should wait until you got your strength back completely. But back then, when we were in Koh's home, I met… your son."
She paused, uncertain of what else might need to be said about this.
After a time, Iroh coughed, and there was pain of a different sort in it.
"Did he do anything to hurt you?"
Toph did not hesitate. "No. Not really. He was just sad, and I thought he needed help. Guess I was kind of right there. But he asked me to tell you that you would… be with each other soon."
There came the faintest of sighs.
His daughter-in-spirit shifted her feet uncomfortably.
Of a sudden she felt Iroh's fingers come up to touch her cheek. He spoke in a soft, grieving tone.
"And my son asked me to tell you that he is deeply sorry for what he did."
Much fainter than before, like a whisper…
"If you ever see him again, just let him know…" and she sniffed, tears running across her skin, "… it wasn't his fault, but I still forgive him"
He leaned over and took her in his arms. The emotional Earthbender did not flinch from returning his embrace.
"Thank you for giving my boy back his honor, Toph."
She wiped her eyes on his shoulder blindly, and laughed.
"You're just as dumb as Zuko, you know? Lu Ten did that on his own." She patted his shoulder, and whispered. "I could feel it."
At last they broke away. The recuperating scholar and his attendant both had wide smiles on their faces now. There was no longer even a lingering sense of chill in the fall air.
Then Toph swung her arms back and forth, as though limbering them up. "Well, guess I'll report back to the party-planners that you're good to go. Try to save some room in your stomach. We've got dishes from four different nations to keep us occupied tomorrow."
Iroh sniffed. "Hospital food never did tempt my palate. But the green fire-jelly is something that really grows on you. Ask them to have a platter prepared for me."
The vertically-challenged veteran then laced her hands behind her head and sauntered casually from the room.
When she was around the corner, Iroh heard her call out, "You'd better not have tried to set me up with Zuko."
Iroh grinned. And when he was sure she was out of earshot, he mumbled one of his father's favorite sayings into his beard.
"Old age and treachery will triumph over youth and skill."
After this, he felt tired, and lay down to sleep. Somewhere overhead, a blazing comet divided the sky in two, its energy serving to strengthen and heal those who responded to its call. He felt all this as surely as Toph could sense ants walking across the dirt.
It made him truly think about everything that had happened to his family.
They arrived back at the base of the White Lotus Army on the day of his people's long-prophesied domination. Most of their cohorts had already abandoned that encampment, and journeyed to Ba Sing Se with the intention of liberating the city and defending it from the arrival of the Fire Nation Air Force. The majority of those left behind were the Benders and learned folk who specialized in healing injuries, their services being deemed most valuable after the initial conflict.
By this time, Aang was long gone, acting on some otherworldly perceptions that would lead him to the battlefield of his most dangerous enemy. Absent too were Sokka and Suki, having left to organize one of the Water Tribe warrior's off-the-cuff brilliant strategies to deal with the airships that were even now traveling over the face of their world.
And somewhere out there, Zuko was headed home, having left with Katara to confront Azula. A disgruntled group of captured Dai Li agents confirmed for them that the Firelord's heir had not joined with her father on traveling to the staging area for their grand conquest. Inexplicably, on the eve of their intended departure, Ozai had apparently undergone a series of intense mood swings. He displayed unfocused belligerence towards all around him, followed by accusations of incompetence and cowardice. And, if rumors could be believed, their former master had sent out a squadron of navy ships with the command to locate his long-lost wife. Lastly, the soon-to-be ruler of the world reversed his position on his daughter, declining to have her accompany him during the coming conflict for reasons not even touched upon. It was their opinion that the princess had not taken the snub kindly, and displayed identically erratic behavior afterwards.
Iroh, in spite of his feelings on the subject, was forbidden by his caregivers from following any of these assaults. In their opinion, the lack of pain was due to the power of the comet, and not an actual miraculous healing. He was still gravely injured, according to their assessments. And, as Toph was quick to point out, when a dozen doctors all agreed with each other, then either they were right or it was the end of the world. Her princely audience did not find this particularly reassuring, and after the healers had left, the two of them discussed their options.
This time was the worst for both of them. Neither had truly believed that slaying Koh would automatically bring an end to this worldwide conflict. But still, it had proven to be their only measurable contribution so far. And cathartic though it may have been, there was little demonstrable benefit. They alone knew that Ozai's unpredictable behavior was probably the result of reclaiming his soul's heart, or at least the loss of his spiritual overlord. But whether or not this would make any difference when he confronted Aang was not so obvious. And while both of them believed in Sokka and Zuko to a great extent, their relative chances against a flotilla of city-leveling sky marauders and a demented super-powerful pyromaniac left a lot of room for doubt and worry. In short, this conflict was far from over.
With no means of locating anyone, they were forced to wait, and pray that whatever news came to them was not more cause for grief.
Several hours later, all their wishes were granted.
Ba Sing Se was liberated.
Azula was overthrown.
And in the early hours of dawn on the second day of the comet's coming, the Avatar returned to them.
He brought with him Iroh's fallen brother.
Shortly after all the heartfelt congratulations and tearful reunions were over, Aang asked to speak with Iroh and Toph alone.
There was something about the young man now that made them almost anxious in his presence. It was not that he seemed exhausted, although clearly he did. More the fact that he was a young man now, and not the flighty boy they were accustomed to seeing. There was a greater sense of maturity in his bearing. And perhaps, sadly, a bit of distance. Like he had settled into his role as the Bridge Between the Worlds, and was no longer completely one of them as a result. The consequences of Aang's newfound clarity would only come out later, when he and Katara were at last reunited, and each permitted the other to share their true feelings.
But for the time being, there were certain matters to be discussed.
First off, the scion of the Airbenders felt compelled to relate how his confrontation with the Firelord had played out. They met one another at last on the western shore of the Earth Kingdom. While Aang had been fully expecting to have to deal with an army of Firebenders, he was somewhat surprised to find that Ozai wished to challenge him personally. It was a strangely headstrong and ill-advised move, especially considering just how much manpower his adversary had brought to the field. Even before the fight started, he could see that his long-feared enemy was in some kind of difficulty. His reactions were illogical, seeming to stem from a limited willingness to reason or plan ahead. After the Avatar's plea for reconciliation was rejected, and the two superpowers began to battle in earnest, something else became apparent.
Aside from raw power, there was very little to commend Ozai's fighting style. It was strangely exhilarating and disappointing to see the supposed peak of natural Firebending prowess was little more than a proud bully with a temper. And when his tremendous attacks met with no success in the first few minutes of the duel, the Firelord become even more reckless, impetuous, and uncontrolled. No creativity was evident. Just wave after wave of comet-powered fire blasts. Admittedly for a time, Aang had been hard-pressed to break away from his natural inclinations to dodge and disable instead of directly attack. But it seemed that he had a clearer idea of just what was at stake here.
Ozai behaved as though this fight was a personal brawl between two rival hoods looking to hold power over a stretch of territory. Aang saw it as the revelation of his duty, a chance to end the war in one decisive moment, and the reconciliation of his failures with his principles. There would be no running away this time.
So he did what his oldest friend had advised. Of the two fighting, he tried to be the one to think like a mad genius.
The first move was simple. Ozai's only original trick was the power of full-fledged flight. Aang had seen a lesser example of this power in his lost battle with Azula. And ultimately, he was an Airbender. Master of that element, and by far the more experienced flyer of the two. While Ozai was busy trying to swat his puny opponent, the wily wisp of a fighter bent a series of updrafts that served to knock the Firelord about, robbing him of his sense of equilibrium. For a time there, Ozai actually flew towards the ground, mistaking which way was up. Aang then sent a small gout of controlled flame around behind his enemy's back. When Ozai finally righted himself and was drawing breath for another fire stream, he was quite shocked to find that his hair was burning. The realization caused him to lose control over the flame propulsion from his feet, leaving the bedraggled Firelord plummeting earthward at ever-increasing speed while attempting to pat out his blazing locks.
It was during this hectic struggle to remain aloft that Aang took a cue from his dreaming subconscious, swooped in and pulled off the Firebender's pants, burning them away on the wind.
After Ozai recovered himself, his martial form and his fury were dampened by the realization of how ridiculous he looked. Aang did not display humor at his adversary's predicament, and it was partly this icy-cold condemnation from his supposed nemesis that caused the leader of the Fire Nation to deteriorate even further in the perception of his vaunted superiority.
He did not attempt to fly after that, choosing instead to ignite a forest fire in the surrounding area, perhaps hoping that Aang would be more at a disadvantage in such an environment. Instead it was Ozai who found himself forced to douse his own handiwork as the earth itself reacted to hurl him off his feet towards burning bushes, or when the branches of the trees bent down to slap his face with their fiery limbs. One of those flaming brands gave him a painful blow to the left eye, leaving him half-blind and quite wild. Now singed, covered in soot and thoroughly shamed, the aspiring ruler of all men simply broke down sobbing, curling in on himself and whimpering like a lost child.
Coming upon this humiliating sight in the midst of a hellish inferno, Aang was only then made aware of the possession.
Lines of fire coalesced from the body of the weeping nobleman, reaching hungrily like twisting serpents. On the ends of those sinuous lashes, there could be seen howling faces in the flames.
Astonished by this sight, Aang could not respond when two voices called, and the forest's entire conflagration drew in upon them all.
Both combatants would have died then, had it not been for the Avatar Spirit.
In the face of death, a thousand souls came to their defense. Both Avatar and Firelord then stood wreathed in a furnace in which nothing human could survive. Inhuman evil screamed out loud, demanding blood, and through ancient eyes the living incarnation of nature's elements gazed once more on the fiery hydra. With the wisdom of ages behind him, he recognized a hideous corruption of life: the faces of two men long dead attached to their living descendant, fused to his soul by blood, hate, and the death-curse of an immortal. The conjoined hydra breathed flame from the darkest pit directly at the object of its scorn, seeking to impose their undying will on the world and people that had refused them.
Never had Aang known with such certainty the dire threat represented here. This triple Demon-God of Fire was an amalgamation of their element's most destructive properties, and now had access to three lifetimes worth of power, craft, and wrath. Were it allowed to roam free, with Sozin's Comet to empower its phenomenal strength, untold millions would die. At this stage, it might even destroy the whole world before it could be brought low. Here, then, was the reason for his existence, a clear purpose in his having lived until this day. There was no doubt or hesitation to be found. Only the unsullied desire to stand between the devastation wrought by both men and spirits, and to repair the horrific wound done ages ago by the people he was sworn to protect.
Aang abandoned his limitations, and entered the Avatar State.
He fought the great beast with everything he had, then. Here and on the spiritual plane their battle raged, his resolve and mission tested against the unleashed conquering soul of the destroyer.
The Fire Monster sought to slay him. And he knew that the fastest way to ensure the future of the world was to destroy their earthly link, by killing Ozai.
But Aang was an Airbender. More than that, he was a person! And a decent, kind one at that. No longer did he consider this an abdication of his duties. Instead, through that devotion to life came the answer.
To the fore came Roku, and he seized the screaming face of his childhood friend, holding it back. At his side there was Yang-Chen, the previous Airbender Avatar, and it was she who imprisoned the flaming mask of Azulon, who had butchered all but one of her folk. The rest held back, as Aang came forward to confront Ozai directly.
The man's eyes ran with flaming tears, and he seemed utterly lost and helpless, with not the slightest vestige of humanity left to him, enslaved by the will of his sire and grandsire.
The orphan Aang, who had never been permitted to know his own parents' face, watched that of his avowed enemy, and recognized the path to victory.
From the very air, he created a pane of water, and held it before Ozai's mad features.
"See yourself," he whispered, eyes glowing.
The one good eye focused on that image, the other half-shut with pain.
Then Aang altered the water.
"NOW SEE WHAT YOU'VE DONE!!!"
The power of the Avatar showed Ozai the haunted, sick gaze of a person much younger than himself. A boy in his teens, whose face was horrendously burned, scarred by fire. One eye eternally clinched by the ghost of pain, hair on that side burnt away, and the red fleshy stump of an ear. The resemblance was undeniable.
He recognized Zuko, his eldest child.
And the words came back to him.
"PLEASE, FATHER! I AM YOUR LOYAL SON!"
The boy pleaded tearfully on his knees, begging for his beloved parent to show mercy. But there was no answering call within him. Urged forth by Koh and his scornful ancestors, he then proceeded to coldly mutilate his own living heir, beyond any hope of repair.
Ozai remembered what he had done.
For a few seconds, there was only simple shock.
Then reality took hold, and his damaged brain realized the enormity of this error.
With a roar of absolute fury, the Firelord reached backward and ripped the stalks of fire off his back, flinging his shrieking foreparents' twisted ghosts into the mighty inferno. The Spirit of Fire itself reached out and took their souls, drawing them away from the world of mortals, which they would never trouble again.
When this had been done, Aang caught Ozai's unconscious form in his arms. They knelt together under the glow of the flames, until after a time, that rapacious fire finally went out forever.
The damage had been done. But in the end, life prevailed. The Avatar knew this. It was a lesson he had learned from someone in this age, whom he would never have had cause or reason to meet otherwise. There on that burnt-out plain, Aang finally had no more reason to blame himself for running away so very long ago.
His tale came to an end, and his audience was spell-bound.
Aang then asked for an explanation from the two as to their involvement in recent events. They provided him with a cogent detailing of their endeavors, including Iroh's revelation of his family secret and the resultant horrors that came about as a result. They mentioned Lu Ten, Kuruk, the Fire Sages and Dai Li, as well as a few spirits that each of them had encountered to varying degrees. At last Iroh and Toph related to the Avatar their final battle with Koh the Facestealer, and the mystic monk nodded thoughtfully.
"I remember," he spoke dreamily, gray eyes staring off towards the sun. "He told me that we would meet again. I didn't really think about it. But when I entered the Avatar State I spoke with Roku, and he said that he had been called by the spirits of many people from his time to the place where they had died. He met both of you there, and told me that you had set those people free, along with a lot of others. It made me glad to know you were both okay, and at the same time, it helped explain a lot of things that had never quite made sense to me, then or now."
The living repository of bygone days then nodded, and drew himself up. Clutching his staff, he turned and looked out over the face of the world.
"It's finally over."
He proceeded to thank them for rescuing him from certain death, which both gladly accepted.
Then they returned to their fellows.
That night, for the first time in three generations of men, the world knew peace.
There was a party going on in the capitol of the Fire Nation, one that catered to a select crowd. Many such festivities were still taking place across the face of the globe in a frenzied orgy of long-repressed exultation, ranging from city-wide festivals to quiet cups of wine shared amongst neighboring farmsteads. But this one was very special. The only people invited were close friends, allies and acquaintances of the Avatar. Along with a few important personages that had been requested by the Firelord.
It was growing late. Outside the brightly lit ballroom, the lights of the city stood out like so many dancing stars.
At least, that was what half the boys who approached Toph were wont to exclaim. She was inclined to reply back with several well-crafted put-downs that had now served to leave her quite alone on a couch in the corner of the room, chowing down on spicy foods of all kinds and wondering glumly if she could exit before anyone else noticed her. The Blind Bandit was determined to have a few words with the hosts of this event come the morning. For the time being, she amused herself by inventing colorful insults for each of them.
Even with the huge windows allowing air in here and servants operating fans, it was still stiflingly hot from having over two hundred people in one space. Through the floor of obsidian and ruby jade, she could detect the swirling movements of those engaged in dancing, polite conversation, and some other activities that she was not inclined to inspect too closely. The memory of seeing from the Spirit World was growing dim within her, but Toph's accustomed senses had lost none of their perceptiveness. Her parents were out there, mingling with practiced ease among the crowds of Fire Nation, Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom nobles and studiously ignoring the rowdier party guests. A small crowd had formed around the Earth King and his beloved 'bear' Bosco. They were some distance away, so Toph could not accurately discern whether those people were there to ogle the secluded and naïve monarch or his unusual companion. She remembered hearing that pets often took on the characteristics of their masters, but in this case, it was hard to say which was which. As one of his subjects, and one of the few people to actually speak with him before a few months ago, the Bei Fong's heiress held her monarch in good regard. But considering the way her parent's heart-rates subtly spiked every time the two of them conversed, she was keeping her distance for the time being. He didn't seem to mind. Nor was the Earth King apparently aware of the potential trap brewing in the wings.
Oh well. They'd all find out soon enough, if her mom and dad had anything to say about it.
Which they didn't, as far as she was concerned.
Toph dipped a shrimp into one of the blobs on her plate and shoved it into her mouth, tail and all. The crunch they made was part of the enjoyment, as far as she was concerned. The number of seafood dishes tonight nearly matched those from the mainland, courtesy of the Northern Water Tribe royalty. Chief Arnook was currently conversing with Guru Pathik, King Bumi, and the parents of Mai and Ty Lee. Get Aang in there and you'd have a complete set, she thought idly. There was a more wide-spread selection in terms of the music tonight, though. Select entertainers from all over the world had been commissioned to perform. She recognized the musical stylings of a few Earth Kingdom troupes. But the plaintive solo melodies of the Water folk, accompanied by minimal instruments, touched something in her heart. Whenever one of them sang, it seemed to cool the place down considerably, and certainly many conversations stopped to pay heed to those ethereal sonatas. In contrast, performers of the Fire Nation jumped from stately waltzes to frenzied dances whose names she could not pronounce without taking a deep breath. The center of the hall was reserved for those who felt the need to express themselves through dance, while the other party-goers lingered on the outskirts, content to conduct their business or pay their respects without the risk of staining their fine clothes with sweat.
Actually, in the cases of some of the people Aang had invited, she could only pray that smell was due to perspiration and not anything inhuman. Foggy Swamp Tribe, she thought, I'm looking in your direction, which even a regular blind person wouldn't have trouble finding.
Toph was so caught up in her musing, she almost didn't register when a familiar pace broke away from the dance floor, weaving its way artfully through the crowd to approach her.
She placed the plate to one side, rose to her feet and bowed.
"Not you too," he murmured jokingly.
"Awww," she pulled a mournful face. "It's tough being rich and powerful, isn't it, Hot Stuff?"
Zuko snorted and gave a toss of his head, his normally unruly hair now caught up in a severe topknot. "You forgot handsome, too."
"That's what you think."
They laughed, and then both took a seat next to one another. The couch did not have any legs, allowing for Toph's to remain in contact with the floor. This was something specifically requested by Zuko, she had learned, and she was grateful for it.
"Have you had a chance to talk to your uncle yet?"
He shrugged. "I guess you could call it that. My mob of would-be girlfriends collided with his crowd of suitors, and we were able to call out a few words to each other before the opposing tides pulled us away."
"Oh brother," Toph muttered. "It's happening all over the place. I'm beginning to suspect this is all a big trap designed by our parents to get us married before anything horrible can happen to us."
"Yeah," the prince-turned-ruler chuckled. But there was no hiding the truth from her senses, and both ears and feet picked up on the tell-tale signs.
"Does it hurt to think about them?"
Zuko didn't ask to whom she might be referring.
"Yes. But that just shows I'm human."
Impulsively, Toph reached over and hooked her arm into the crook of his robe, laying her head against his shoulder. The Firelord accepted this act of compassion without any sign of awkwardness. It was a most familial gesture, and it served as a reminder for him of what family was supposed to be.
Somewhere out there, in the night, his own kin lay entombed.
It was not a final separation. Both Ozai and his daughter were still counted among the living. After accepting Azula's challenge of an Agni-Kai to ascertain dominance, Zuko had finally triumphed over his demented sibling, asserting once and for all the true source of their Firebending craft over the poisonous hatred championed by Sozin's spiritual heir. But the victory had not come without a price. Both of Ozai's children had been grievously injured in the rapacious but weirdly beautiful dance of death. Katara, who had been present as an observer, had commented on the supernal grace and skill evident in both of their forms, likening it to Waterbending for the sheer fluidity of the battle. More than anything else, Toph wished she could have taken her friend's place to witness that struggle. But in the end, she reflected that it was for the best that things had worked out this way. She could not have done as much to restore the battered pair once it was over, despite the limited supply of water Katara found in the grand square of the Royal Palace. The stubborn Earthbender also would not have been inclined to treat Azula first as Zuko had demanded, no matter how much more severe his maniacal sibling's burns might have been. The Southern Water Tribe girl was privately willing to admit that it was only due to the healing not being preempted that Azula had managed to endure, regardless of the fire-witch's seemingly miraculous survival ability.
Now the deposed Firelord and his acclaimed successor were imprisoned far to the north, in the frozen dungeons of the Water Tribe. The intense cold and limited solar radiance throughout the year served to rob them of most of their powers, despite the continued presence of Sozin's Bane in the heavens. Another month or so, and the arctic nobility would consent to cutting the guards posted about them by half. This was something Zuko had cautioned against. Ozai for certain had experienced some manner of moral renewal, to the point where he had insisted they imprison him for the crimes he had committed. His son still held out some hope for his parent's eventual release. But Azula was another matter. The crazed prodigy was no longer safe to keep in close proximity to anyone not prepared to fight for their life. Her continued existence was like a force of nature waiting to be unleashed, a wildfire, or a volcano.
Toph shuddered at the thought of what was locked up half a world away, and decided to ask her regal accomplice the question that had been on her mind since hearing about this.
"How come you tried so hard not to kill her? You can bet the thought never crossed her mind."
In response, Zuko reached up and began to stroke the top of her hairbun.
"Because she's my sister. And I care about her more than I fear her." He shook his head ruefully. "Well, I do now, at any rate."
The tiny earthmover frowned, hugging his arm tighter. "I still don't get it."
"No?" He turned to regard her. "Well, you've never had a sister before, have you? And really, neither had I. Not the way you're supposed to. I used to watch Sokka and Katara sometimes, and I wondered how they could be so comfortable around one another. Yes, they didn't get along every minute of the day. But even when they were arguing and screaming, you could see that it wasn't because they hated one another. Every moment was based on mutual love and respect. They care about the others' well-being, and wanted to do what was best for them. There just wasn't always agreement about what that might be."
Even with the constant hubbub all around her, listening to his voice made Toph feel like she could just drift off to sleep at any moment. It wasn't that she was bored or tired. More like safe and secure.
"So now you know how a brother's supposed to act, huh?" she mumbled into the rich fabric.
"Mm-hmm," he nodded in agreement, casting a look down at her. "Very much so. But you get the idea more than you might think. Don't tell me you haven't been keeping track of everyone who's come close to Aang these last few weeks."
"Pfft!" Toph snorted, blowing out the bangs that had come loose to hang before her eyes. "Even if you're right, which by the way you are, that would make me his sister, not his brother!" Unconsciously she performed a quick scan of the surrounding hall, recognizing the dainty pattering of their reincarnated savior and checking to verify there were no tell-tale bodily signs of foul-play among his admirers. Zuko's girlfriend Mai was also standing watch by him at her lover's request, her frigid demeanor no doubt serving to warn off anyone that drew too close. To either of them. Satisfied that all was well, she came back just in time to hear Zuko cough dramatically.
"Well, actually, if you were to take every boy under the age of twenty present tonight, and ask them which of the two of you was more effeminate, I think Aang would be disappointed by the results."
The Lord of the Sun flinched, expecting a punch to the arm, but instead his guest proved to be surprisingly nonviolent, choosing only to snuggle up closer to him.
"Maybe I don't care what boys think! I like men! Warm ones."
Before Zuko's brain could come up with a suitable response, Toph shook with suppressed laughter, and leaned up to whisper in his ear.
"Are they watching us?"
Her personal headrest blinked, confused. "Who?"
"All the other girls."
He looked up, just in time to see a score of smoldering gazes be hastily redirected elsewhere.
"Ah," he grinned abashedly. "I might have told them that I would be coming back to the dance floor in just a minute. Young ladies are deadly serious about promises involving time constraints, and I've definitely broken mine."
"Well, don't keep them waiting, your Majesty! Hop to it!"
She hopped up herself, giving a firm pull on his hand. Zuko was forced to obey. But as he came to his feet, when Toph began to resume her spot on the couch, he held her back. Her head cocked slightly to the side as his strong hands encased her own.
"I haven't seen you out there tonight. Why don't you come dance with me?"
The flush of pink cheeks and the way she scrunched her shoes together looked so adorable he could hardly resist telling her so. But the violence predictable from such a statement might have marred the moment.
"Actually… maybe you should just go on without me."
Her close friend smiled curiously. "Any real reason for that?"
Toph's body language had swiftly relapsed into cool confidence. If only she could see how nervous her face was to others' eyes. "The reason is I've never danced before in my life. Nobody tried to teach me how. They said it was useless."
The thought of that unkind word being applied to her settled the matter for Zuko.
"You know how I Bend, right? You've watched me, in a way that only you can."
She swallowed a little nervously. "Yeah. Sure. I know."
A grin crinkled the deep gold eye until it matched its scarred mate. "Well, dancing follows the same principles as Firebending. Just follow my lead. You can do this, Toph. I've been watching you too, and I've seen it in you. Trust me on that."
There was uncertainty now, and a flicker of indecision. But as he suspected, such timid emotions could not hold out long before this enduring spirit.
"You'd better pray you don't embarrass me." The wealthy socialite reached up and laced their arms together. "Lead the way, your Lordship."
It took every ounce of self-control to hide the smile her performance endowed upon him. Even so, Zuko suspected she was aware of his teasing mirth, but chose not to comment upon it. Instead he set a stately pace, leading his chosen dance partner once more into the sea of swirling symbiotic steps.
The Water Tribes alluded to dance in terms of duality. Like the ocean and the moon, they taught you, first offering, next receiving. Push and pull, give and take, responding to the other's movements and signals, a distance preserved but the connection undeniable. Zuko had learned this from his mother. It served to highlight the difference in styles between both nations. For their part, the Children of Fire saw dance as a chance for two beings to become one. The blending of separate flames into a seamless whole, greater than either had been before. Exhilaration and closeness, challenging and matching, until there was no distance left in between. This was how one spoke to their partner, telling them everything with their bodies that words dared not express.
Zuko had counted on Toph's natural abilities coming to the fore in such an event. And when he extended one foot slowly forward, and saw hers instantly matching his pose, he knew that he had judged correctly.
The sight made him feel bolder, and as the music's pace began to increase he performed a swift revolution, dropping down and extending one leg out, gradually slowing his momentum to finish in a low crouch with his eyes on level with Toph's. Or rather, where they would have been, were she not in the exact same posture as him, and consequently just a bit shorter.
But even in that position, there was no missing the way her eyes shone with glee, or the breathless anticipation that gripped every muscle in her body. The education was a bit late, but clearly the student was more than willing to join in the dance.
They paired off that night. As Toph became more adapted to the demands of this unprecedented partnership, her natural litheness and smooth grace started to take control, allowing the blind dancer to do more than just anticipate movements. She began to look forward to them. In a few words, she was having fun. This expression through their bodies was like an Earthbending match without any losers. Never before had the neophyte suspected that participating in such a display would open up a whole new world, not just in the capabilities of her body, but in those of others. For the first time, it felt like she had found someone who could communicate on her own level. Through their movements. When he spread his hands, it was telling her that he was enjoying himself. If he extended them, it meant he wanted her to draw closer. Contraction and loosening of his muscles was how he courted her attention. The challenge lay in not going too far with her response, lest her unbridled enthusiasm reach past the veneer of similarity and bring out a true expression of Earthbending.
Zuko bent his knees and arched backwards, so far he was practically parallel to the floor. His arms reached up towards the roof, sweeping back and forth, fingers weaving in intricate patterns. Still in this position, he began to move around the area. The confidence in his ability to hold this form travelled through the floor, leaving her pliant in her partner's grip. No matter what Toph's brain might tell her about the contortionism necessary to pull off such a feat, she found her own body mimicking his stance, falling into step before him and moving along the same course, like two shooting stars chasing each other across the firmament. There was an excited murmuring from all around them now, evident below the song. But she could not be expected to pay it any attention. The dance was requesting her presence, and nothing more mattered. Just muscles and tendons answering their call, responding so artfully to one another that she might have been his shadow, or vice versa.
His palms struck the stone, and her acrobatic elder launched himself into the air to perform a tumbler's somersault, his long robes proving no hindrance as usual. She followed, spinning breathlessly in midair without any idea of what was going on around her. It was a presentiment born of this phenomenal joining that told her to unfold her limbs to their limit at the last second, and then he had caught her, already settled on the ground, arms resting securely under her back and legs folded beneath him.
Chords of music were fading. Firelord and Earth Goddess remained frozen in that position. One of Toph's legs was arched up towards the ceiling. The other slowly reached down until her toes touched the stone.
A faint rumble was felt by all present, passing away before anyone could remark upon it.
Zuko rose and settled his enchanting accomplice to the floor, panting and grinning foolishly. The look of exultation that Toph wore was testimony to her own enjoyment. And by the sounds of adulation that were spreading through their viewing audience, there was little doubt that they were significantly impressed by the feats of agility.
Then a dam seemed to burst, and eager suitors poured forth to engage both of them.
Recognizing that they had only a few moments of privacy left, Zuko bent down and whispered in her ear. "Try not to bring the palace down, all right?"
Her response was a swift kiss on his cheek, just below the burn mark.
"Don't wait up."
The pair of performers were caught by their respective admirers, and another dance began
The festivities in the palatial mansion had drawn to a close. The guests had all gone home or returned to their suites in the royal apartments. Servants moved silently through the halls, bringing towels and treatment where requested, or more likely sweeping up any lingering messes. Sometimes along with the people who made them. There was no denying it had been a vast success.
Firelord Zuko padded through the moonlit courtyard. More had transpired tonight than might be readily apparent. He had cemented agreement for his country providing reparations and war recovery efforts to their long-aggrieved neighbors, to begin immediately. Certain people suspected of profiteering on both sides had been confirmed, along with suitable punishments for them. And prisoners of all kinds were officially released to return to their families. No sense wasting any more time. They had all lost enough as it was.
But in addition there was a greater exchange of ideas. Many of the nobles from Ba Sing Se, Omashu and the North Pole expressed deep admiration for certain aspects of Fire Nation culture that his people were accustomed to for more than one hundred years. In particular, the hawk-driven messaging system, and public plumbing works. Hot water from a faucet certainly had its share of interested proponents. And the Bei Fong family in particular was a firm backer of flying postage, having inexplicably received one such delivery several months before the end of the war. Trends were bound to spring up as a result.
Zuko only hoped that he and the other world leaders could retain the trust of their people and keep the more aggrieved parties in line long enough for such benevolent collaboration to take root. There was definitely a lot left to resolve between the nations of the world. And, he remembered distinctly, between the world and its people. Spirits had their concerns too, after all.
There came a rumbling chirp from somewhere above him.
Looking up, Zuko caught sight of a pair of great green eyes, followed by a flash of movement. Before he could react, something landed on his shoulder.
Momo, Aang's pet lemur, licked his burnt ear. His perch winced, more out of unfamiliarity than pain. But in doing so, Zuko finally realized something. There were voices speaking nearby, low and earnest.
Some residual traits of his life as a highway robber took hold then. Cautiously, he made his way over to a path leading off the courtyard from which the sound of conversation came. He stole along that way, his slipper-shod feet making no sound. Momo remained on his shoulder.
After a few well-known paces, he had arrived at the entrance to his family's private gardens.
By the pond there sat Aang and Katara. They were deep in discussion.
"…not something I ever thought about before," his tattooed ally was saying. "But when I first saw you, it was like something changed for me. I had a reason to look forward to every day that wasn't there before that one. Maybe you didn't notice it but…"
"I did notice it, Aang." The Waterbender skipped a pebble across the water, and then had the water skip it back to her. She repeated this process. "In the same way you noticed Meng back at Aunt Wu's. Peripherally."
"How did you know about that?" He sounded curious.
"From Sokka. And please, let's try to stay on topic. This is hard enough as it is."
"You're the one who mentioned her at all," Aang was quick to retort. "I'm just trying to be honest with you here."
"I know that! And I'm trying the same thing for a change, instead of just avoiding something I find so uncomfortable! I'm looking to resolve this instead of just hoping it will go away!"
Zuko could tell she was cross as well. Perhaps they were both too tired to be doing this right now, even if it was a long time coming. But then, he reconsidered. Being tired might be just the thing to get them to say what needed to be said.
When Aang spoke next, he sounded rather weary, and sad.
"Uncomfortable? Is that how you feel around me?"
Don't fall apart now! Their unseen observer urged them both silently. You're not mind-readers, and neither of you can be called children anymore! You know what you feel, so just say it!
He doubted his presence here could have any affect on the outcome of their soul-searching. But when Katara spoke next, there was definitely no hesitation in her.
"Yes. Sometimes. Because you look at me in a way that almost demands I look at you the same way back. And I don't even know what it is you're feeling for certain, so I don't know what it is I'm supposed to feel in return."
Her earnest admirer reached out then, and took her hand.
"It's love," he spoke softly.
Katara's eyes widened.
Aang's remained steadily trained on hers.
"The answer to the question of what I'm feeling for you is love."
His fingers encircled her palm, holding onto her. There was a gentle, beseeching tremor to his tone. Like he wanted to reassure his paramour, but was afraid of how she might respond.
At this point, Zuko decided it would be best for him to leave.
Before he could make his escape, though, there came an answer.
"The word for what I feel for you is the same…"
He increased his pace.
Katara's voice seemed to follow him.
"The emotion behind it just isn't."
It honestly hurt him, somehow. Because regardless of everything they had once represented in his life, he knew now that Aang was a caring and considerate human being, and Katara was filled with more compassion than a person should safely be allowed. They were two exceptionally decent, loving souls, and it made perfect sense for them to be together at the end of this tale.
Except this wasn't a story. Not yet anyway. It was still their lives.
And in real life, love didn't have to make sense, and as often as not didn't.
That was something they were both going to have to live with and accept on their own.
The lord of that demesne returned to the palace proper. At some time during the last few minutes, Momo had left his shoulder. When he could not say. Somewhere behind him a heart was being broken. Perhaps the intelligent animal had sensed this and gone to be with its master. Some small comfort would certainly not hurt to get Aang through the night. Tomorrow Zuko planned to seek out his destined ally and seek to offer him counsel on such matters. Until then, it would probably be for the best if they got a good night's sleep.
A silent emblem of all things noble, the cheerless aristocrat continued into the depths of his home. Royal guards stood at paired intervals throughout the lofty halls, offering the benefit of their protection for all who slept tonight therein. Some of the sentries were invisible to the naked eye, ensconced within hidden recesses or even aloft in the rafters. Their master's experience in breaking into secured facilities had given him the benefit of knowledge, and so there were many levels of protection now active within his dwelling. With so many important personages at stake, it paid to be both cautious and crafty. Any disturbances were to be reported to him, no matter the time of night.
Passing by one door in particular, Zuko thought he recognized two more voices, only these were certainly not engaged in anything solemn. The Firelord paused in his procession. It would not do to press his ear to the wood, even if there were not security forces watching from the shadows. And besides, such demeaning acts were not necessary. In a few moments, he had his confirmation.
"Sokka…wait! Wait, wait, my hair is caught!"
"I can't see what, it's behind my head, genius! Why don't you tell me?"
"Hold on. Suki, stop fidgeting! I've almost got it!"
"Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry!"
"Stupid carved oak…uhhh…"
"Headboard, yes! Why would anyone need something like this anyway? To bang your head against while you're sleeping? Are there no piles of leopard sealskins to be found anywhere in this entire evil complex?"
"Would you stop complaining and kiss me already?"
Nothing. And then a contented sigh. Followed by a giggle.
"What?! Tell me!"
"The great warrior has face paint on again."
An amused chuckle. "Well, another great warrior has hers all smudged."
"Did I ever tell you how sexy you looked in full Kyoshi regalia?"
"If that's an offer to play dress-up, then I am more than willing to participate."
"Well, then, who would I be?"
"I found her old room, and all the stuff is still in it, so if we went rooting around in there…"
Amazed laughter. "You are so unbelievable. I can't believe the way your head works."
"This head here is the one that figured out a simple barrel of blasting jelly attached to a stone could then be launched by some Earthbenders to burst any balloon, no matter how big."
"And I'm the one who recommended we attack from behind where they probably wouldn't be looking, instead of the front where all the fire was coming from."
"See? We make a great team!"
"I agree. But before you start calling us Team Sukka or Sokki or whatever, I have a request."
"And that would be?"
"Shut up and kiss me."
There was no further conversation after that. Leaving them to their own devices, Zuko proceeded on his way, equal parts amused and dismayed. Amusement, because those two clearly were not hiding their feelings from anyone, and more power to them, he thought. Dismay, because he had agreed to set them up in a separate room together, despite the protests of their respective parents regarding such sleeping arrangements, arguing that Suki at least was mature enough to handle any situation. Somehow, he had a feeling that statement was going to be thrown in his teeth tomorrow morning.
And dismay too, because he knew someone who would never speak out against this no matter how much she wanted to.
It was obvious if you paid enough attention to her. And it was the only feeling Toph could be depended on to keep her mouth shut about. That made Zuko feel pained once again.
He resolved on something then. With heightened purpose, the master of the house swept down the darkened corridors until he reached his private quarters. Entering, he found what he wanted where he had left it the day before. Zuko had intended to present it upon their departure, but right now he saw no reason to wait. With that he returned to traversing the moonlit passages until he came at last upon one door in particular.
Her parents too had fretted at having their daughter sleep so far away from them. One would think she was made of glass, but Zuko had skillfully reassured the anxious couple that his staff was well-trained to assist her in any manner she might need. He couldn't blame them, really. While their daughter was a proven fighter and survivalist, they hadn't been there to observe her at her best, and had even been denied knowledge of whether she were alive or dead for months. Just the testimony of a couple of morons that had been pried out of a metal box. And when people loved you, second-hand accounts were poor consolation. But in the end, they had consented to follow their daughter's wishes in this regard.
Zuko knocked on the wooden portal, and then waited patiently. After a time, he picked out the sound of her moving across the room.
Toph opened the door a crack, and stood leaning against the side.
"What's up, Firedancer?"
She had only gone to bed half an hour past, so she didn't appear to be sleepy. Wrapped in a green silk and gold thread dressing gown her family had brought, the little girl had finally let her hair down, and it cascaded to her knees. Had he not been certain, the head of the household might have mistaken her for someone completely different.
"I hope you weren't asleep yet."
Toph shrugged dismissively. "Just finished my ablutions a few minutes ago. You've got nice shampoos and oils here, even if they do make your skin tingle. Did you want to borrow some, is that why you're here?"
"No. I wanted to give you something." And he knelt down before her, taking one of her hands in his own and pressing his gift into it. She examined it curiously, running her fingers all over its surface.
"Feels like good quality," she mused.
"It belonged to my mother."
In her tiny palm was a small gold hair clasp attached to a chain. The pendant was shaped into two dragons coiling in upon each other in a series of concentric rings, rising at the center so that their heads overlapped the coils to hang down together. Between their mouths there dangled a ruby teardrop on a gold fastening, with another at the end of the chain.
Toph raised her pale gaze towards his face. "Shouldn't you keep it? I thought you said there was a good chance she might still be out there."
She held it towards him, but he pressed her outstretched hand back against her heart.
"It was given to Ursa by her husband on the day of their betrothal, as a sign that she was already a member of his family, no matter what anyone said about it. When she left I found this among her things before they were all thrown out."
The parentless ruler reached up to place a hand on Toph's shoulder.
"I want you to have this, Toph Bei Fong. You fulfilled all the faith I placed in you, protected a member of the royal family, and saved him from certain death. And just as importantly, you gave me a chance to see what it's like to care for your little sister. If not for that, I might have had something to regret from winning this crown. There's still hope for all of my kin as a result. My uncle already told you this, but I wanted you to hear it from me too."
Zuko lifted her chin then.
"We consider you to be a member of our family, and in my heart especially that is true."
And he placed a warm kiss on Toph's brow.
He felt her shiver as he drew away. The girl's mouth hung open slightly. She clutched the teardrop ornament to her breast, and its namesake could be seen quivering under her dark lashes.
"If there's ever anything that makes you feel alone or unloved," Zuko continued, "just find me, and I will comfort you as best I can. No matter the reason or what distances may separate us, you can count on me to care."
The earthly angel felt a single drop fall down her face and strike the stone. She turned away then, holding her new treasure.
"Thank you, Zuko," Toph spoke softly.
She closed the door behind her, and they both went back to bed.
Toph came awake, only to realize she was dreaming.
But that being said, it was like no dream she had ever known.
Normally her nighttime visions were made entirely of darkness, and sounds without forms, an apparent result of not being able to feel anything inside your own mind. But now the blind brawler found herself somewhere real for a change, and perfectly aware of that fact.
She could see it.
If this reminded her of anything, it was the Spirit Realm, but nowhere she recognized. There looked to be a great rounded cliff stretching out before her. In the center of that circle was a small tree on a hill just a little higher than she was, with green leaves and bark the color of a pair of eyes she remembered from before. There looked to be many people going all about the tree, along with strange-looking creatures whose nature she could not guess at. They appeared to flicker in and out of view, to be replaced by new ones. But she felt certain that they were all there tending to the tree.
She seemed to be still in bed, if her guess was correct. Before she could try and verify this somehow, a small hairy creature with a brightly-colored face scampered up to join her there. It looked at her curiously, blinking in intense scrutiny.
"So what are you?" Toph asked.
"Curly-tailed blue nose."
It wasn't the monkey who said that, but someone behind her. The dreaming child looked across the bed, to find a man gazing back, sporting a finely crafted jaw, a broad nose, and gentle eyes. He was smiling at her, and there was something very familiar about him even though she had never laid eyes on his face. Maybe something about his clothing, or his hairdo, so like Zuko's.
It came to her then, with the certainty of a dream.
The perfectly whole spirit stood and bowed forward gracefully.
"At your service, my lady."
Toph couldn't help but smile back. "So this is what you look like! I'm glad to see it."
Her companion sat back down. "I owe it all to you. Does this mean we can be friends for real now?"
"Sure we can." The girl held out a hand, and he took it. Though there was no feeling evident, this did not stop him from placing a courtly kiss on her fingers. She withdrew them embarrassedly. "So. Where are we? I'm guessing this is the Spirit Realm."
"Yes," Lu Ten inclined his head in confirmation. "A place you should be familiar with already. You don't recognize where we are?"
She turned her attention back to the tree and its attendants, then gave a negative shake of her head.
The princely spirit gestured. "What you see before you is my old home, the Tree of Truth."
Toph gaped. "No way! That?!" Once more she studied the relatively miniscule plant, trying to correlate it with the dire sky-high husk from before. "What happened?"
Lu Ten stood, and she joined him. Together they approached the supple foliage, and he began to speak once again.
"When Koh died in the mortal plane, the faces he retained were set free to rejoin their respective owners. All but a few came back here, passing through the Tree on their way home to us. Being cleansed of all falsehoods by this realm's former master, and with his ire no longer there to hinder it, our fair visages served to rejuvenate the Tree of Truth. It sloughed off the wreckage wrought by man and spirit alike, assuming its original form. When all of us saw it, we decided that something so precious would need looking after from that point on, and so now the care of the Tree has fallen to us. We're looking forward to a full recovery on its part. Especially now that things are settling down where you came from, and more people are starting to look for answers instead of just orders."
They stood together, watching the spiritual caretakers attending to their charge.
"It's really beautiful," Toph spoke happily.
The Tree glowed then, its leaves rustling together.
Lu Ten nodded. "She says, 'Thanks, so are you.'"
"Sweet." The Blind Bandit settled down, and continued to observe the proceedings with joy. From behind them, the curly-tailed blue nose gamboled past. Reaching the base of the tree, it scrambled up into the branches. When it came back down, the primate was carrying something. This it brought back to where the two friends both now sat. The monkey proffered its offering to Toph, and after she took it, turned and ran back to join the others.
Toph examined her finding. It was small and colored a hue she was not familiar with. Before she could ask, Lu Ten supplied the answer for her. "It's the fruit of the Tree of Truth. Just a small one, really, not fully developed yet. In case you're wondering, it looks like a strawberry to me. Red, like rubies."
"It's pretty." Toph cradled the rare offering carefully now.
"Like I said, it's only a small truth." Lu Ten caught her eye, and smiled. "But I think if you try it, you'll find that it was grown just for you. By way of gratitude for all you've done."
There was honesty and trust in his words. Anyone could see that. So without further ado, the dreamer popped the berry into her mouth and bit down.
A pale light blossomed from within the Tree. It grew in intensity, until nothing else was visible, and Toph felt certain she must finally know what it was like to stare into the sun, even if it didn't hurt. From beside her, though he was no longer visible, Lu Ten spoke.
"Thank you for championing all the faceless ones, Toph Bei Fong, daughter of the earth. When you see the Avatar, tell him he has our regards, and he should stop by soon. There's still a lot left to do for the future. Give my love to the ones I left behind. My father and uncle, and my little cousins. To all the children, I bid you long lives and truest sight."
The light was so bright, there was no choice but to awake.
Toph sat up in bed. She couldn't tell for certain, but it seemed to still be night outside. There certainly wasn't enough commotion to lead her to think the palace was active. Most likely everyone would be dreaming away long after the sun came up.
In the cool silent tranquility of the slumbering city, the sightless devotee of the world brought her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees and resting her chin on them thoughtfully.
Like with most dreams, not everything stayed fresh in her mind, but she knew that she had dreamt it. She had spoken to Lu Ten again, assuredly, and he asked her to give Aang a message. A greeting, she thought. Hopefully she would remember that, experience let her know that even those things that you could recall clearly from a dream upon first awaking tended to fade with the morning sun. And there was also the distinct impression that she knew the color blue now, although what good that did her Toph couldn't say. Then that brought to mind the fruit from the Tree, and how she had been told what red looked like, a ruby, just like the one on her other gift tonight, and that she should send love to the family of Iroh, Zuko, and…
Behind Toph's eyes, the perpetual darkness changed to white light once more. She gasped as a vision of something newly remembered emblazoned itself on her memory, so clear and sharp in all its detail that there could be no fear of ever forgetting it.
What she saw was the face of a young man. His hair was black and shaggy, falling down to almost cover his eyes. Those selfsame orbs were a deep gleaming color reminiscent of the bark of the Tree, although one of them was seemingly half-shut. Around that side there was skin of a much heavier shade, spreading back towards one ear, which appeared to be shrunken and mistreated. The rest of his features were flawlessly inviting, and adding to this splendid persona was a slight, sweet smile that caused his cheeks to bunch and his face to practically glow with warmth.
Astonished, Toph sat on her bed clenching the sheets in her fists, picturing this appealing stranger her mind had conjured up.
Within her thoughts then, she watched his lips move as he spoke just two words.
A sensation travelled up her spine, and she shivered, recognizing her name along with something more.
The voice of the person who spoke it.
Toph's heart was beating at a frantic pace, and she placed her hands over that spot, hoping to calm it down. The bewildered beauty had to concentrate to keep her breathing steady. Her mouth was dry of a sudden, and a surge of heat traveled up her chest to infuse her face with warmth.
She felt her eyes drift closed then, mouth hanging open in silent consideration.
Certain words were running through the blossoming flower's head.
"It's only a small truth…just for you."
Honest, and understanding.
"…in my heart especially that is true."
That memory made the breath catch in her throat.
"Are you in love with anyone?"
A deadly soft, teasing voice asked her that simple question, but when she tried to answer it truthfully, the name that came unbidden to her lips was not the one she expected. So she swallowed the truth hastily, and told a lie.
On Toph's tongue there was a taste of something pleasant yet heretofore unrecognizable. Like a color whose name she had learned to recite but never understood the true meaning behind the word until today. After just a few seconds of pondering, though, the young woman felt she could put a name to it.
"It's love," she whispered in amazement. "True love."
For a while Toph just sat there, legs curled beneath her and hands resting in her lap while she stared uncomprehendingly at the dimly illuminated bedchamber.
She didn't think when she said it, but afterwards, the implications came back and struck home like an unerring boomerang.
The stunned savant slowly fell backwards to hit the pillows, then proceeded to bury her face in them, trying to hide from the blush she knew was turning her cheeks red.
"Why can't I fall for available guys my own age?" she wondered out loud.
The answer to this question did not magically appear, leaving Toph feeling both elated and miserable. But the worst was yet to come, she knew. Her face was a mask that could hide nothing, and before too long, her feelings would be known to everyone with the eyes to see.
So what am I going to do about this, she thought?
When the knock came, he climbed out of bed and shuffled over to the portal, donning a red silk evening gown as he did. When he reached the door, he tied the sash securely before opening it. Don't want anyone to be made uncomfortable by what he had to show, right?
As it turned out, indecent displays were nothing to be concerned about.
Toph stood out in the hallway, looking slightly anxious.
He blinked, feeling a pang of worry.
"Toph? What's wrong? Why aren't you asleep?"
She shuffled her feet, and swallowed before speaking.
"Hey, Iroh. Can we talk?"
"Of course." Without hesitation, he drew aside and allowed her to enter the room. As she padded silently in, something caught his eye.
"That is a very becoming hair clasp on you, Toph."
Her fingers came up to touch the dangling ruby briefly.
"Thanks. That's kind of what I wanted to tell you about."