Writer's Note: Unexpectedly I found myself with a plotbunny for this story several weeks ago, and while I tried to ignore it, telling myself that this was meant to be a stand-alone, the idea wouldn't go away. So here it is, written out. I have no idea where it's going or how long it will be, and I have no idea why it wanted to be written. I'm a dumb writer =D.
Sorry, but I refuse to address you by your title. I've known you since you were shorter than me - I think it's fair to leave it out. Your advisers can take issue with me if they want. I won't care.
The Earth Kingdom is weird. The food is boring, but the people are entertaining. I would have thought that traveling amongst average people would repulse me, and I guess initially it did, as you well know, but now that I've had several years to get used to it, I honestly can't imagine anything else. While Azula found it disgusting and Ty Lee found it a game, I find travel a sort of adventure. It has yet to lose its novelty.
I know you said use a fake name, but if I want to use my chop to get room and board, that doesn't really make sense, does it? There's no way I can work for a living yet - I only know martial arts, and you can't use that to take care of a farm or help in a store. And I know you're giving this letter a look of frustrated dismay, to which I reply with a rolling of my eyes and a snort.
Maybe I'll settle down some day. But if I haven't done it yet, I wonder if I ever will.
Write me back if you want. This hawk knows my scent.
Zuko sighed, leaning back and setting the letter down into his lap. With one hand, he massaged the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. With the other, he held the piece of weather-worn paper loosely. The silence that hung in the air of his personal apartments was heavy and foreboding.
He hadn't heard from Mai in a while, and it was nice to know she was still getting along, despite the risk in traveling alone. Now that Zuko knew she wasn't using a pseudonym, he felt even worse; who knew what her name and looks could bring? People were still resentful of the Fire Nation even now - five years had done little to cool their tempers. If something went wrong and Mai was in the wrong place at the wrong time, she could pay for it.
But then, Zuko also knew how well she could take care of herself. He grunted, squeezing his eyes tighter. Maybe it was just guilt. He felt guilty for not being enough. He felt guilty for letting the marriage slip through his fingers.
And yet... He opened his eyes and skimmed the letter again. She's happy. She's really happy.
Happier than she had been dressed in silk and speaking political double-talk. Perhaps that was also to be expected, really - Mai had spent her life running away from politics. Though her love for Zuko had been great, he wondered if her joy and hope in his own political career had only been for his benefit and not her own.
She had smothered that part of herself for years, lived a life she hated for years, all for me.
It was no wonder he felt guilty.
Toph was making short work of the stack of deep-fried dough fritters placed before her. She was starving, and at that point it probably didn't matter what food had been placed in front of her, as long as it was digestible. Once the plate was empty, only then did she reach for the mug of steaming tea.
"You see, you do it all wrong," Iroh chided her, sounding scandalised. Toph grinned. "Not only do you rush through your food, but you gulp your tea instead of sipping it."
"It's lukewarm. I don't need to sip."
"You sip to savour the taste!"
"I can taste it fine."
Silence met her words, and she laughed loudly, unable to suppress it. Spending time with Iroh in his teashop was one of her favourite things to do, and she made sure to do it as much as possible for the company - although the free food and tea didn't hurt, either.
"Fine, fine." And here she made a great show of smelling, breathing in, and sipping the half-empty cup of tepid tea in front of her. Iroh huffed and grabbed it, and from the sounds of it was getting up to refill it, muttering something about, "It is pointless if the tea isn't even hot," which made her laugh even more.
Cupping her chin in her hand, she listened to the sounds around her, a toe tapping the cool floor beneath her as she read the vibrations brought up from the gesture. The teashop was only half-full, and the patrons were either elderly or close to it. While Iroh had made the rounds earlier, he spent most of his time at Toph's table, considering her the guest of honour and allowing the other waitstaff to help the others. It was flattering, and it was nice.
When he came back, she realised that he had two mugs. She grinned, sitting up straight. "Going to join me?"
"Perhaps," was the offhand answer. "Or perhaps I merely seek to educate you."
Toph's grin widened. With careful fluidity, she swept up the long sleeve of one arm with her other hand, holding it delicately and smoothly. With her now-bared arm and hand, she gripped the mug with a precise hold, her fingertips barely grazing over the mug's porcelain. She brought the cup to her lips, pressing it right between them, but without taking a sip. She shut her eyes and breathed in though her mouth first, taking in the cloying aroma of ginseng, tasting the minute flavour within the steam. Then, she exhaled slowly and closed her mouth, breathing in again through her nose slowly. The scent of the tea seemed to intensify, and she could practically taste it upon her tongue, before exhaling, she wet her lips with the hot liquid and licked them with the very tip of her tongue.
"My, General Iroh," she said, lowering the mug back on the table and placing a hand to her cheek. "Your tea is simply delightful! You must have your servants give my servants the recipe!"
The response was instant, and delightful. Iroh's laugh exploded from him light a great wave, and she could feel it as well as hear it. She laughed, too, her own guffaw, unable to keep it banked despite the act.
Once the laughs died down and the tears were wiped away, Iroh said, "So what brings you to the shop today?"
"What doesn't? You left the Fire Nation to check up on it, so I followed you." Toph said it plainly because she meant it. "When you go back in a few days I'm going to follow you."
A brief pause. Then, Iroh said in a softer voice, "Why are you following me, Toph? It is not like you to plan around other people."
Shit. Toph bit her lip, then bluffed by grabbing her mug and gulping the tea. She had hoped it would distract Iroh enough to move off of the topic, but it brought nothing from him, not even when the mug was empty. With a scowl, she slammed the mug down and snapped out, "Can't I just do what I want and not have to be questioned for it?"
To his credit, Iroh took it calmly. Toph wondered why he took her shouting with such quiet tranquility, then realised - with a funny little jolt - that he had probably grown used to it when he had traveled alone with Zuko all of those years ago.
The silence stretched between them. Clearly Iroh was waiting her out, and she refused to rise to the bait. It was rare that the two ended at a stalemate like this, but it did happen, and it usually lasted a long time until someone - usually Toph - caved and spoke up.
But not this time. Toph didn't know why, but it felt important that she didn't speak. For some reason, she was afraid of what she might say if she did, as if she wouldn't have control over what came out of her mouth.
Iroh sighed, the sound gusty and deep from his chest. Toph crossed her arms over her chest, clamping her mouth shut, and finally he spoke. "Very well then. Have you visited your parents lately?"
Still dangerous ground, but not as dangerous as the previous patch. She scowled at him. "You know I haven't."
"And why is that?"
Toph growled, hoping to scare him from the topic, despite knowing it was fruitless. "Because I hate them! I haven't seen them in five years and I won't see them for another five. Can we move on?"
"You don't hate them," was the frustrating reply. "You just don't want to become them."
That was the last nerve touched. She adored Iroh and found glory in spending time with him, but when he started pushing her about personal things, it usually went too far and too deep. She stood up hurriedly and stormed out of the teashop without hesitation. Iroh didn't call her back, and she would have ignored him if he had.
Zuko was still brooding over Mai's letter when a servant came by with a rolled-up summons. When he inquired who it was from, the servant made a helpless face and shrugged, admitting that she had no idea but that it had come by hawk a few minutes ago.
Bemused, Zuko unrolled it... and stared. What was written before him were masses of scribbles, unreadable and unlike any shadow of writing he had ever known. No matter how hard he squinted, he couldn't even detect a hint of a character, not even a wisp.
He had no idea what he was supposed to take from it, whether it was a threat in code or whether it was some kind of drawing that Sokka just forgot to sign. On the latter, he squinted close, since sometimes Sokka's drawings were viewable if he looked hard enough, but when his eyes started to water and he still had no clue, he gave up. With a growl, he tossed the letter onto the floor and sat back down on the couch, his hand on Mai's letter. He didn't pick it up, but he didn't ignore it, either. He just leaned his head back and closed his eyes, trying not to think at all.
A few days later, Toph camped out on the outskirts of the Fire Nation capitol, sitting before a warm but small fire and chewing on a piece of jerky that she had filched from Sokka the last time she'd seen him. She'd actually been there since morning, but the trip over the water on one of the ships made her so sick that she had spent the morning and most of the afternoon losing her lunch and sleeping it off. She still didn't have her sea legs, and probably never would.
As she poked the fire, she wondered if Zuko had received her letter okay. She hadn't had time to pay a courier to transcribe a message, so she just grabbed a brush and a paper and made one herself. She had some faint idea of how characters were supposed to look, since she had in the past touched several stone tablets with raised words on them, but she didn't remember much of that and so she just scribbled as much as she could before sending it away. She hoped that Zuko was smart enough to get it. If not, well, scaring him was always hilarious, anyway.
She wasn't quite sure why she was back in the Fire Nation. She usually had the excuse of stalking Iroh around the world as cover for wherever she went, but this time she had left him behind. The thing was, she liked the place. She liked the different pitch that the song of the earth beneath her feet seemed to have, and she liked the people and the crazy food. Most of all, she liked Zuko, and liked being able to cheer him up, since he had been in a sort of funk since Mai had left and he'd had to divorce her.
She thought about that, tearing a piece of jerky off and chewing it slowly. In the years she had gotten to know Mai, she had sensed an inherent restlessness in the older girl. The love she'd had for Zuko was real, but the unease and the strain were also just as real. Sensing a kind of kindred spirit, she and Mai had talked many times alone before, sharing their similar pasts and bonding over it. In fact, it was to Toph that Mai first admitted her intentions of leaving.
"I'm just so tired," Mai had said suddenly one day, her voice weary and low. Toph froze, sensing a deeper tone in those words, and realised with a start that Mai was exhausted. "Everything I do, everything I am... I feel like all I'm doing is lying. I want to be there for Zuko, so much," and here Toph heard a wistfulness in Mai's voice, a sad tone that betrayed a deeper pain and love, "and I want what's best for him, but... I don't think..."
The pause was long, and when Mai spoke again, her voice was choked and barely a whisper. "I don't think he's best for me."
Toph pondered that now, ripping off another chunk of jerky. She remembered feeling so sad for Mai, wanting to make it better for her friend, but at the same time, she also knew, somehow, that she was probably right. She hadn't heard Mai laugh in a long time then, and realised that the jovial teasing that the other girl had gloried in was also absent. In trying to remain the perfect wife for Zuko, always being their and being his pillar, she had ended up doing so at the expense of herself. It was no small wonder that she felt she had to leave.
Toph missed her all the same. She wasn't lucky enough to get letters from Mai. She wondered how her friend was doing, and resolved to ask Zuko once she arrived in the Palace.