Warnings: Very large age gap between Iroh and Toph, even though Toph ages considerably in this fic. Also, character death.
A/N: Written for the ATLA Couples month. All characters belong to Nickelodeon. I make no money from this fic. Also, this particular version of "Slumber My Darling" belongs to Yo-Yo Ma. Infinite thanks to Val-Creative for betaing!
Sunlight has passed, and the twilight has gone;
Slumber, my darling; the night's coming on.
The jars of tealeaves in the Jasmine Dragon Tea Shop were all kept on the floor, surrounded by different kinds of earth. White jasmine tea, for one, was surrounded by granite, where little gravel pebbles encircled ginseng. The stones and dirt served as labels for Toph, the only kind that she could really see.
Iroh liked to tell her it was a good thing she was blind. "I'm getting fatter and uglier in my old age," he said, nearly every morning. "I'm losing all my hair. And soon I'll only be left with my gums, and you'll have to pour soup into my mouth as I lay and rot to death in my bed."
"If you lose any of your teeth on the floor, I'll make sure to find them for you," Toph usually replied. "And with an ass as fat as yours, I'll never be able to miss you when you enter a room!"
The truth was that Iroh wasn't fat, not anymore. To Toph's perceptive senses, he seemed – well, sick. Very, very sick. But she told herself over and over that she was wrong. If the floor trembled in odd ways when he walked, it was only because he was a little unsteady on his feet these days. But that was all right. He was perfectly healthy otherwise, even for an old guy. Even for a really old guy.
So what if she'd had to lead him down the street the other day because he'd had a hard time seeing where the stones were broken. So what if his hand had trembled and shook in hers like a leaf in an autumn breeze. He was perfectly fine.
Even if the teashop's patrons tried to tell her otherwise.
After the war ended, it took Toph five years to work up the courage to visit her family again. Previously, whenever Aang asked if she was going home anytime soon, she would pretend to make plans to visit her family, then go to Ba Sing Se instead.
It wasn't that she liked Ba Sing Se. It was another city, another set of rules, and a lot of bad memories. But there were good memories there, too, now – good memories, and Iroh.
The first time, she went to Iroh because he was the only person she knew. She'd been about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday, and everyone had assumed she would go home to be with her family for the occasion.
"Your parents must miss you," Katara had said. "And anyway, you've changed so much since they last saw you. They'll be so excited."
"Yeah," Toph had replied, guiltily. "Yeah, sure they will."
She'd packed her things and left with warm birthday wishes from the gang, and a few birthday presents. Sokka had offered repeatedly to go with her – just to make sure she was ok – but every time he suggested it she punched him. Hard.
Too bad that had long ceased to shut him up.
Nonetheless, nobody followed her after she set out for home. They let her go it alone, the little blind girl who saw with her feet traversing the path towards Gaoling.
For a minute – just a minute – she'd thought about doing it. She'd thought how wonderful it would be to hug her mother, to hear her father's voice, to tell them about everything she had learned and done. They would surely have heard about her adventures by now, would know that she, Toph, had taught Aang – the Avatar! - how to earthbend. Surely they'd be proud of her now.
Then she remembered the battle her father had witnessed, and how he hadn't understood – not even then, not even after seeing how much earthbending was a part of her. How she could take care of herself.
She turned off the path towards Gaoling, and went to Ba Sing Se instead.
She found the Jasmine Dragon by pure luck. She could see the roads well enough, but she couldn't read road signs. She asked a few passerby for help, but they only wanted to hold her hand and drag her there, like a child.
"Oh, you poor thing," one woman had cooed, reaching out to stroke her hair. "Here, let my husband and I take you there. Helpless girls like you shouldn't be out on your own."
"I'm not helpless," Toph snapped. "I'm just lost."
"Yes, well." The woman sounded smug, aloof, even as she tried to sound friendly. Poor little blind girl, she must have been thinking, believing she can take care of herself. Well, rich folk like ourselves must do our bit for the humbled.
Toph turned on her heel and walked away, with the woman calling to her in alarm and distress.
It was much the same with anyone else she asked. Either that, or they gave her visually oriented directions that were useless to her.
It wasn't until hours later that she felt a very familiar tread coming up behind her on the road.
She whirled, arms open, and flung herself at Iroh with a cry of joy. "You!" she exclaimed, as she hugged him tightly.
"Toph?" Iroh laughed, and hugged her back. "I wasn't expecting to see you. How did you know it was me?"
"I'd know those footsteps anywhere," she replied. "Though you seem a bit heavier on your feet these days." She leaned back and patted his belly curiously. "What's this? A pillow?"
"There's too much good food in this city," Iroh said mournfully. "I can't seem to avoid it."
"I suppose it just magically appears in front of you," Toph said, arching a brow.
"Oh, yes," Iroh replied, voice grave. "And I feel it would be terribly rude to refuse it, when it has so obligingly filled my table."
"Filled your belly, more like," Toph said, poking at his stomach again. "Though it's not as bad as it used to be."
"Don't worry," Iroh said. "I'm still a fat old man like you remember."
Toph grinned. "I could use a fat old man like you right now," she said. "Actually I've been looking for you. For your shop."
"A visit!" Iroh said, clapping his hands in delight. "It's been awhile since anyone has come to see me. Zuko writes me letters every day, and I appreciate all the news, but it would be nice to see him once in awhile."
"Good luck," Toph snorted. "I think even Mai hardly gets a chance to see him. He's so busy with all these uprisings..."
They fell silent. So many people believed Zuko to be weak, and thought he was damaging the Fire Nation with his grand notions of an era of peace. He had to fight every day to prove that he was doing what was right. Usually, by the time Toph met him, he was exhausted, hungry, and anxious to spend time alone with Mai.
"You wouldn't want to see him anyway," she continued, as lightly as she could. "He's so cranky he nearly lit my hair on fire just for saying 'hello.' Also he stomps a lot. Either he's wearing steel-soled boots, or he's gaining weight. He practically knocks me over every time he comes banging by."
Iroh chuckled. "I see not much has changed," he said. "He used to walk like that as a child, after something had gone wrong. He's always been so sensitive to the bad things. It's like every little bit of bad in the world affects him personally. I remember – "
Toph yawned and shifted her feet. Iroh liked to blather about Zuko whenever he had the chance. He was so proud of that boy. Toph felt a pang as she wondered if her parents ever talked about her that way.
"Oh, don't listen to an old man's ramblings," Iroh said, taking her arm. "Come back to the tea shop with me. I'll give you a cup of a new brew I've just made – it has cinnamon and apples in it. You'll love it."
She followed him to the teashop and found a seat. She suspected people were staring – some of them might know who she was, might remember that she had helped to train the Avatar. And the sight of a blind girl might have surprised some of them. She remembered that she had once been able to swing her feet while sitting at these benches – but not anymore. She fitted well on regular benches now.
She felt Iroh approaching and listened to the gentle clink of the dishes as they were set down. "There," Iroh said. "Some tea and a hot meal. You look like you could use both."
Toph grabbed for the cup of tea and swallowed eagerly, reveling in the taste on her tongue. "This is pretty good," she said, wiping her mouth on her arm.
"Oh, well," Iroh chuckled. "High praise indeed."
"You know me," Toph said, around a mouthful of rice. "Always there to boost egos and kiss ass."
Iroh laughed, so hard the bench on which they were sitting shook. Toph grinned and shoveled in another mouthful, hungrily devouring the meal.
"You know," Iroh said, "You came an awfully long way with no warning. I don't suppose you were running from something, were you?"
Toph stiffened, but didn't turn her head towards Iroh's voice. "Can't a girl drop by for a visit without being accused of running away?" she said. "You should know me better than that. I face my problems head on, all the time. No matter what."
Iroh was silent. Toph continued eating, but with considerably less gusto. She didn't really like lying to people, and for some reason it was especially hard with Iroh. She had the oddest feeling that Iroh could see through her, that no matter what she was thinking and trying to express, he already knew.
"Zuko tells me you're turning fourteen at the end of this week," he said. His voice was amiable enough, but Toph sensed the question. "He said you were planning to visit your parents."
Toph stopped eating, wiping her mouth viciously across her arm. "I don't think they want to see me."
"All parents want to see their children again."
"Really? Did you ever pay any attention to your brother's treatment of Zuko?"
She regretted the words immediately. She shrank in her seat and for once was glad that she was blind. She didn't want to see the look on Iroh's face.
"Your parents are not Ozai," Iroh said quietly. "My brother was corrupted by the desire for power. Your family may not understand you, but that does not mean they do not love you."
Toph blinked. "I'm just... I'm not ready," she said. "I don't even know if they're ready."
Silence hung between them again. The teashop hummed with conversation and life. A small child in the corner was playing with something four-legged – a squirreldog, still in its puppy stage, Toph realized a moment later when it barked.
Iroh stood up and patted her on the shoulder. "You are welcome to stay here until you are ready," he said.
Toph brightened. "You won't tell Zuko I'm here, will you?"
Iroh hesitated. "No," he said finally. "It will be our secret."
Toph smiled and went back to eating her food. Iroh stood still by her for a moment, then started to walk away.
Without pausing in her eating, Toph called, "Hey Iroh."
He stopped. "Yes?"
She took another bite. "Thanks."
She couldn't see his face, and never would. But she had the feeling that he smiled.
Toph had only a vague idea of what the human form was like. She knew there were four limbs, a head, and a torso. But she had no concept of color, no idea of aesthetics, and no real understanding of facial features. Instead, she tended to see people in terms of earth. Aang was the breeze through the grass, quick and light and airy. Sokka was mud, silly and fun. Katara was flat granite, solid and stable, warm if it was the right time of day and cold if it was the wrong time. Zuko was a landslide, unstable and angry and dangerous, sometimes leaving destruction in his wake, but often awe-inspiring too. Mai was sand, ever shifting and changing whenever Toph tried to get a better grip.
And Iroh? Iroh was a mountain, firm and powerful and resolute. Sometimes he was craggy and dangerous, but mostly he was tall and proud and beautiful beyond measure. He understood her as only mountain earth could; he covered every imaginable bit of terrain and some that were unique only to him. He raised her higher than anyone else ever had.
He was her mountain, stable and steady and always there to shelter her when anything went wrong.
Toph finally worked up the courage to see her family when she turned eighteen. For years she had lived with her guilt and longing, spilling it out to Iroh over cups of hot tea every time her birthday came around. He had come to expect her then, and was ready with warm words and a hand to hold.
But this year, she'd promised him, would be different. This year she knew Lao and Poppy couldn't lock her away, wouldn't dare. She was unquestionably an adult now, outside of their control. They could talk as a family. Maybe now that she'd grown up they'd be ready to accept her for what she was.
Toph made the journey to Gaoling alone. Along her way she was a mess of nerves. To fight her fear she bended everything in her path, wrapping herself in a stone suit, hurling rocks through the trees, creating huge hills and other obstacles so that she could climb and leap and wear herself out. It was easier to exhaust herself than think; better to force herself to collapsing point than to worry too much.
When she finally arrived at the Bei Fong house, she stood before its familiar doors and felt the tremors of the household running through her feet. She could still remember what it was like to be trapped behind those walls, having to act like a fragile little ornament when she was really rock-solid and strong. All those years of lying about who she was had made her hate being false in any way.
Now was the time to remedy all the falsehoods she had told to make Aang and friends believe she had gone to see her parents. Now was the time to make it happen.
She could feel the gates rearing high above her head, and shuddered. A horrible feeling of claustrophobia washed over her, a sense of impending imprisonment and pain.
For a second, she thought about turning back. But she pictured feeling Iroh's disappointment, and couldn't quite bear to face him without having tried.
She took a step forward and banged on the gates, loudly and with more confidence than she felt.
They swung open slowly, too slowly for her liking. She shifted nervously from foot to foot, and wondered if the servants from her childhood were still the same, if the gatekeepers would even recognize her since she'd been away so long.
There were three guards, but only one stepped forward to look at her. "Who are you, and what right have you to interrupt the Bei Fong family's evening?" he demanded.
Toph recognized the voice of the guard – one of the many who had once protected her. "You don't recognize me?" she said, arching an eyebrow. "I know it's been awhile, but I'd assume one blind girl doesn't look the same as another. Not that I would know."
The guard inhaled sharply. "You are Toph Bei Fong!" he exclaimed. He dropped to his knees and stuttered, "Please, forgive me – I did not recognize you. It has been many years since you have been home."
Toph bit back a smile and shrugged, as though she didn't much care. "No worries," she said. "I figured you wouldn't know who I was right off. It's been awhile. How's the girlfriend?"
The guard's body shifted a little as he looked up at her. "We've been married three years," he said. "We have a baby on the way."
"Well, congratulations," Toph said. "That's great."
"Thank you. It is an honor to be remembered by so great an earthbender."
Toph grinned. "Hard to forget you. You and I spent a lot of time together back in the day." She reached out and punched him fondly. He sucked in a breath, but didn't comment. Toph reflected, with a little guilt, that she had never treated her guards with much respect when they were with her; unable to lash out at her parents, she had lashed out at them instead. That she remembered their personal lives at all – and was now acting like she cared – much come as quite a shock.
She almost expected him to remark on the change, but he said nothing. "You'll be wanting to see your parents," he said instead. "Are you back to celebrate your birthday?"
Toph nodded. "I figured, hey, important birthdays should be celebrated with important people." She bit her lip and ran a hand through her hair. "So... uh... how are they?"
"They are... well, they're fine, I think," the guard said. "I'm sure they'll be happy to see you."
"Do they ever... you know... talk about me? Ask about me?"
"Well..." The guard shifted sheepishly. "No. Not really. At least, not around me or my guards. But I'm sure, from other, more informed sources..."
Toph felt a chill of fear run through her. "Look," she snapped, "Are you just going to leave me standing out here, or what?"
"My apologies," he said hurriedly, standing aside. "I will of course announce you at once. I assume you know the way?"
Toph stomped past him. The path felt familiar, but it was different too. There were new plants growing and a few sculptures that hadn't been there previously. And when she made her way over the front stoop, she could immediately feel that the hall was different. There was new furniture, probably new portraits on the wall. Servants bustled past without acknowledging her; for the most part, their footsteps were unfamiliar and strange. A few servants paused and stared, and these were the ones whom she recognized, whose footsteps she still remembered. She smiled and waved in their general direction, as though nothing at all was odd about her presence, as though she was confident and unafraid.
It was all a really big lie. But then, this was a house of lies for Toph, and old habits died hard.
The gatekeepers led her to a parlor – the room had previously been a library – and left her there, bowing as they backed out.
Toph knew she'd be unable to sit still, so she got up to explore the new room, feeling her way around. The furniture here was simpler than she remembered, lighter and far less ostentatious. She ran her fingers over several sleek chairs, a dais, a special shelf full of scrolls. That at least was familiar; it was the long line of family history, and from the feel of this particular shelf it was the history of the most recent family members. Her little cubby was to be found three rows down on the right, two cubbies before the end. She automatically reached down to grab for it – and found it empty.
Her stomach turned, and she pulled her hand away as though burned.
She felt her father's entrance before she heard it. His footsteps were quiet and slow, the measured pace of an aristocrat who believed he had the right to make every guest wait. She hurried immediately to one of the chairs and threw herself into it, trying to look casual. She almost immediately changed positions, uncomfortably aware of her training as an aristocrat. In this household, she sat up straight. She did not lounge. Lounging was rude, and worse still, it was something the peasantry did. It was not fitting behavior for a daughter of the Bei Fong family.
So she sat up stiff and straight and miserable, and waited.
The door swung open with a very small creak; it would need to be oiled again soon. Lao entered, his pace as steady and measured as ever. He stood perfectly still for a moment, poised and noble, a reflection of Toph's perfect posture.
"Toph," he said, very quietly.
Toph gave up her self-control and launched herself at him.
He seemed more surprised by the hug than she'd expected, and less welcoming than she'd hoped. Even so she clung to him, waiting for approval, waiting for him to forgive her, waiting for him to tell her how proud he was. "I'm sorry it took me so long to come back," she whispered. "I was just so scared you wouldn't accept me for who I am and I didn't want something bad to happen like it did when I revealed myself, but really I've missed you so badly and I'm sorry I haven't told you or visited or anything, just – "
Lao gently extricated himself and cleared his throat, holding Toph out at arms' length. "You've become a very lovely young woman," he said.
Toph blushed. "Thanks, dad."
"But these clothes..." He clicked his tongue. "You dress like the peasantry."
She stiffened. "They're not so bad," she said. "Anyway, I hang out with a lot of people. You know, being friends with the Avatar lets me meet – "
"Do not speak of the Avatar in this house," Lao snapped. Toph took a tiny step backwards, as though he'd slapped her across the face. "He took my daughter away from me."
"What?" Toph said. "No, it wasn't like that at all. I ran away to help him. I knew that was where I belonged."
"Where you belonged?" Lao repeated, his voice rising steadily. "You belonged here, with your family. And look what he's done to you – making you afraid to visit, tearing you away from us."
"No!" Toph cried. "No, dad, you've got it all wrong. Aang's wanted me to visit you – in fact he thinks I have been visiting – it's me who's been afraid, not him. It's just last time when I wanted to leave you didn't understand that I can take care of myself, but you must've heard about all the things I can do by now – "
"Oh yes," said Lao, bitterly. "I've heard. A powerful but tomboyish bender with a mouth like a sailor, spitting and cursing with the best of them. That's how they described you to me, but I couldn't believe it. I did not raise my daughter to behave in this way." He paused, and Toph had the feeling he was scrutinizing her. "But you're not my daughter anymore, are you?"
Toph choked on her own breath. "I'm still your daughter," she said.
"No," Lao snapped. "If you were, you wouldn't have run away in the first place. You would have respected your family's wishes for you. You would have known we wanted what was best."
Toph clenched her fists. "What was best?" she repeated. "You thought locking me up in this house, keeping me secret from the entire world, leaving me with no friends and nobody to talk to, was best? You saw I could take care of myself. You saw I could earthbend and that I was really good. You knew I wasn't helpless like you thought all this time. How could you even think keeping me here was a good idea?"
Lao turned his back towards her. "Please leave my house," he said, his voice cracking. "It will only be painful for both of us if you stay."
Toph stood frozen for an instant, her breath hitched and coming in tiny gasps. "But – "
"Please, Toph." He sounded broken, immeasurably sad, maybe a little confused. But mostly he sounded angry – deeply, impossibly angry. "You need to go."
Toph stood there unmoving. She waited for him to change his mind, for him to turn around and admit that he loved her. She wanted him to tell her he was proud of her and her accomplishments. She wanted his forgiveness.
He offered her nothing.
With a howl of frustration, Toph reformed an elaborate metal vase into a ball and hurled it against the wall, smashing the shelf of family history. She shoved her father aside and ran out of the house, ran as fast as she could without running into servants and columns and every other unfamiliar bit of the house.
As she ran she felt as though her throat was slowly constricting, strangling her. The walls of the house were closing in, the roof collapsing, and if she didn't get out in time she would never feel free air again.
She burst out the front door and hurled herself towards the gate, no longer sure if she was gasping or sobbing.
She reached the gate and fell to her knees, drawing in deep breaths. She gulped in the cool evening air and tried to calm herself, but nothing helped. Her whole body shuddered with the violence of her rejection. She drew great heaving sobs from the depths of her belly and coughed them out onto the ground. The dirt beneath her fingers was at least a little stabilizing, something to cling to while she tried to process what had just happened.
But there was no processing such immense pain. All she felt was suffocation and despair, collapsing over her in a great wave. She needed to get away, needed to run. And run she did.
She rode a wave of earth to Ba Sing Se, not caring what she destroyed. She let the pile collapse, huge and heavy, in front of the gates. "Let me in," she growled to the guards who stood in the midst of the dirt she'd dragged in, looking startled. "Let me in, or so help me – "
She didn't have to finish.
The teashop, when she finally reached it, was busy with people, but they all fell silent when they saw her. Toph wondered what she looked like to them right now. The muscles in her face felt sore from grimacing, and every single inch of her felt taut. Even though she couldn't see them, she knew every patron was staring at her, every eye turned in her direction, seeing her as she would never see herself.
Familiar footsteps made their way across the shop, steady and firm. "Toph," said Iroh, his voice even and calm. "How good to see you. Why don't you come into the back? I have a special brew made up for your birthday. I was just about to test it. How lucky you came here. You must've smelled the tea all the way from Gaoling!"
She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again when he slipped an arm firmly around her shoulders, guiding her through the shop, through the incredulous stares and soft whispers, into blissful silence.
The doors clicked shut behind them, and the breath that had been hitching in Toph's throat came loose. She sobbed, a loud, gasping sob that smashed the peace of the kitchen.
Iroh embraced her, warm and steady and loving, and she pressed her face into his robes and cried herself dry of tears.
Iroh was much like a rock at sea, smoothed and worn with the waves of time. There was much to be learned from him about inner peace, about acceptance.
Iroh had been many things in his life, and he had taken something away from every moment he had lived. These times – difficult and ugly though they may have been – made him what he was, but they did not define him.
Toph, on the other hand, was jagged and sharp at the edges, broken and cracked in places. She could not move past the bad things that had happened to her, replaying them over and over again in her mind.
She had drowned in her sorrow, but Iroh had pulled her out.
In the months following the ugly confrontation with her parents, Toph hid herself away in a room above Iroh's teashop and did not come out. Every day, Iroh brought her food and tea. He sat with her, sometimes for several hours, but she rarely said anything.
She didn't cry like some people would have, but her silence was as disturbing as her tears might have been. When Zuko came to the teashop for a visit, he went to see her, but she barely spoke to him. Zuko apparently returned home and told the others, because Katara, Sokka, Aang, and Suki visited her, in quick succession.
Katara, of course, was sympathetic. "This kind of rejection must hurt a lot," she said. "But you know we'll always be there for you."
Which was a nice thought. But Katara wasn't her mom – even if she acted like she was half the time.
Sokka tried to crack jokes, and did his best to get Toph to join in – but Toph didn't smile. Not even once.
Suki tried to engage Toph in some games, and challenged her to a fan-versus-rock duel, but Toph wasn't interested.
Of all of them, Aang was the most helpful. He hugged her and murmured, "I'm sorry," and then sat with her for a few hours. When he felt like she needed conversation, he told her news from the various kingdoms; but the rest of the time he was silent, a warm presence exuding friendship and kindness.
Even so, no visit cured Toph's depression. She lay like a slug in her bed and thought dark, ugly thoughts. Was it worth it, she wondered, saving the world and sacrificing family in the process? Was it even possible to move on from hurt like this?
One day Iroh came bustling up to her room, dragging a broom behind him. "I'm sorry to bother you," he said, "But the store is very busy today. Would you mind sweeping for me? I would greatly appreciate it."
It was a simple enough request, and Toph glumly obliged, trudging after Iroh down to the shop with broom in hand. The work at first was annoying and difficult; there were people everywhere, all talking loudly and shuffling around Toph as she tried to sweep up their mess. But soon the job absorbed her, and her thoughts turned from her family to her work.
By the end of the day, she was exhausted but mildly happier than she had been before. And she was so tired that she fell asleep without dreaming about her family.
When she woke in the morning, she lay in bed awhile, thinking. When Iroh came in with her breakfast, she sat up and inquired, "Have any work for me to do, lard-ass?"
For a moment, there was no reply. But then: "Oh yes," Iroh said, his voice light and cheerful. "I've plenty for you to do. I'm getting tired of heaving this old gut around the place. I ought to be able to put my feet up and watch you work instead."
Toph held out her hand. "Give me a broom, and I'm ready to go."
Instead of a broom, she got Iroh's hand. He squeezed her fingers tightly in his, and left her breakfast by her bed.
Feelings were complicated for Toph. She acted on them impulsively and immediately, often without regard for the affects of said feelings on those around her. She felt things deeply, too, more deeply than some; thus her pain was often worse than others', her fury the stronger, her joy the more infectious and wonderful.
Love for Toph was dangerous and frightening and multi-layered. To earn Toph's love required the remarkable ability to break down a thousand walls of sarcasm, grit, and suspicion. First Toph had to trust you, unequivocally so. Then she had to respect you – as a person, as a mentor, as a friend. Then she had to be convinced that her world would be darker without you in it, that you really were the be-all and end-all of her life.
In other words, she needed to know the person she loved for years.
And years, she and Iroh had.
Toph became a permanent fixture at the Jasmine Dragon. She and Iroh decided, about a year after her arrival, that they might as well buy her some furniture of her own if she was going to stay so long. Then he sent for a tailor and bought her some clothes – and a uniform for the shop. "If you're just going to hang around sweeping all day," Iroh said, "I might as well hire you. At least you'll be an official member of the tea shop instead of riffraff off the street."
At first it seemed it would be impossible for Toph to work at the teashop. She couldn't tell the difference between teas when they were in cups, and she wouldn't be much use mixing tea leaves; even though the tea leaves felt different in her hands, she couldn't necessarily tell which plant was which, nor could she determine which jar it needed to go into; neither could she determine which tea should go to which customer once the tea had been brewed.
To remedy the difficulty, she and Iroh pulled a nightlong stint designing a system of earth to indicate which jars held which tea. They also designed cups with different symbols that Toph could learn by feel – one type of cup for each kind of tea. It was apparently an expensive overhaul for the shop, but Zuko helped fund it. It was pretty convenient, having the Fire Lord in your family. Iroh went on about it for days, until Toph told him to shut up about Zuko already.
The fact was that Iroh's love for Zuko made Toph a little jealous. After all the time she'd spent in the tea shop – and all the support and love Iroh had lavished on her – Toph felt, in many ways, that Iroh was all hers. It didn't matter that he was Zuko's uncle, or that Zuko had years more history with him than Toph. Zuko was away in the Fire Nation and Toph was here.
Not that she hadn't been asked to go elsewhere. After she'd recovered from her long stint of depression, Zuko offered her a job at the palace in the Fire Nation; Aang asked her to be his traveling buddy and guide; Katara asked her to come down to the Southern Water Tribe and help rebuild; and Sokka and Suki asked her to join the Kyoshi Warriors. Toph turned them all down, insisting that she was happy. "I actually like it here," she said. "It's nice being with earthbenders. And anyway, I wouldn't get to hear the Earth Rumble results in whatever wasteland you'd all take me to."
But really she stayed for Iroh. His presence was soothing, the steady feel of his footsteps comforting in a way she couldn't explain. And no matter how she was feeling, Iroh seemed to understand. He knew when to push her and when to be silent, when she needed a hug and when she wanted to be alone. He knew when to tease her and when to be serious, and he understood her jokes. He didn't mind her preference for boyish clothes and didn't object to her bad manners.
The people in Ba Sing Se talked, of course. What was such a young, pretty thing like Toph doing living in the teahouse with old Iroh? They were suspicious and frequently unkind, but never to either Toph or Iroh's faces. Still, Toph knew what they were saying. And while she bristled at the implications, she knew it wasn't entirely unfair of them to wonder.
Even so, she knew they had it all wrong. So what if she cared about Iroh a little more than she did anyone else? He was a good man, the best she'd ever known. And he believed in her and understood her like no one else could. What else was she supposed to ask for in the man she loved?
Yet their relationship, no matter what she felt and what others might have thought, was entirely platonic. Among other things, they spent their days having burping contests, bickering loudly about the Earth Rumble results, and playing Pai Sho. Iroh developed a special set of tiles for her, one where each of the designs was raised so she knew the pieces by feel. The board was placed just so, so that she could feel the location of every tile.
Her proudest day was the day she beat Iroh. Rumor had it that it had never been done before. She made fun of him for weeks.
They passed the years together peacefully, she and Iroh. She teased him and mocked him even as she fussed over him and took care of him; he laughed with her and listened to her and shared everything he had to give with her.
And for a time, they were very, blissfully happy.
One day, after Toph had been at the shop for nearly twenty years, Iroh came to Toph right as she was going to bed.
"May I come in?" he asked.
"You're already in, old man," Toph observed, without turning around to face him. "I can feel your toes wiggling on this side of the door."
"Well, might as well come in the rest of the way then," Iroh laughed. He took a few steps into the room and stood by the door. "Toph, I want to give you something."
Toph turned, raising an eyebrow. "Why?" she said. "It's not my birthday."
"No," Iroh said. "It's not a gift like that."
Curious, Toph walked across the room to stand by him. "What is it?" she asked.
A few seconds later his hand encircled her wrist, and he opened her curled fingers. He placed something round and heavy in her palm.
She blinked and reached out to trace the pattern. It was a Pai Sho tile – a White Lotus tile.
For a moment, she didn't understand. Then she gasped, eyes widening. "Is this – ?"
"You are a very powerful earthbender, Toph," Iroh said gravely. "As powerful as Bumi was – maybe more so. You're not old like me – "
"Older than I'd like to be," Toph grumbled. "Thirty-two. I feel so ancient."
Iroh laughed. "Try being eighty-four, young thing, and then we'll talk ancient." He grew sober again, and tapped the White Lotus tile. "Toph, when I am gone, the Order will need a strong earthbender like you. You are very powerful, and time has made you wise, and will make you wiser. I believe you will be an important asset to the Order."
"You're – making me a member of the Order?" Toph said, awed. She frowned. "What's all this about 'when I am gone'? I know I call you old man, but that's just a joke."
Something about the way Iroh was standing disturbed Toph. There was the smallest of tremors in the ground at her feet; and Iroh's breathing was all wrong, deep and steady but a little hitched, as though something inside him was broken and kept catching in the wrong place.
"Toph," he said, "I'm not always going to be here, you know."
Toph clenched her fist around the tile. "Don't you dare," she said.
"It's a reality you will have to accept – you and Zuko both. I try to tell him he can't always depend on me anymore, but – "
"Shut up," Toph growled. "Shut up about Zuko for once."
Toph wanted to hurl a boulder through a wall. "What's bringing all this on? Are you hiding something?"
Toph could feel Iroh's sadness as though it was a physical presence. It was suffocating. More suffocating was the fact that she already knew what he was hiding, even if she didn't want to admit it. He'd become so much slower, and he ate with much less gusto. And there was something wrong about the feel of his footsteps...
"Toph," Iroh said, "I am old. I'm getting weaker by the day. You must have noticed."
Toph shoved her fears to the back of her mind. "No," she said, stubbornly. "You've been fine. You haven't changed at all. You – "
"Toph." Iroh's voice was firm, steady, and a little angry. "I don't like it anymore than you. But it's the truth. I'm old and I'm sick." He sighed again. "But I'm not sad. I've lived a good long life, and I've had much happiness. I've had you, and I've had Zuko."
Toph gritted her teeth and held out her hand. "Take this," she said.
Iroh stiffened. "I want you – "
"No," Toph said flatly. "I don't want it."
Iroh was silent. Toph didn't lower her open palm.
Finally, Iroh reached out and took the tile back, his fingers brushing lightly against hers.
"Very well," he said quietly.
He turned and walked out.
Toph listened as his footsteps receded down the hall. For an instant, his familiar tread seemed slower, more a painful shuffle than a walk.
She angrily dismissed it as her imagination, and threw herself into bed.
Men like Iroh were supposed to live forever. This was a fact. Hadn't Bumi lived as long as Aang without the convenient Avatar state to freeze him in time?
But a few years after the war Bumi had died, peacefully it seemed. Even in death he was found smiling, laughing at some personal joke.
Aang had had to go away for a few months to be alone, to think, to mourn. When he came back he was the same as ever, but there was still a sadness about him, a longing for something that he could never have again.
Toph had been sympathetic, but in her gruff, tomboyish way. She hadn't really understood, not then. She had no comparable experience. Bumi was the last remnant of Aang's life before the war, the one steady constant of Aang's disrupted existence. Aang had visited Bumi constantly, reminiscing about old times, discussing what had been and what might be again. Sometimes, Katara confessed, she thought Aang and Bumi were closer than even she and Aang. There were just some things Katara couldn't understand about Aang that Bumi could.
Great men like Bumi weren't supposed to die like that, abandoning those they cared about to live the rest of their lives without them. But die Bumi did.
Iroh wasn't nearly as old as Bumi had been. But every day he told Toph he was ready to die, would be happy when death came. "I'm old," he said. "I've lived a good life. A long one, with so many sorrows and so many blessings. I don't think I could ask for any more."
Toph humored him, but really, she thought, he wasn't going to die. Great men like him lived forever.
Toph had become a firm practitioner of denial in the past three years. What she could not see did not exist; neither did what she refused to acknowledge. Iroh's steps, she told herself, were the same as always, even if they sometimes seemed a bit slow. They also seemed a good deal lighter, as Iroh had lost far too much weight. But it was just because he was being healthier, not because he was having trouble eating.
And no matter that every step he took trembled a little more than usual, that his hand was shaky in hers. It was just damn cold in this stupid city. He'd told her so himself.
They did not speak of the rejected lotus tile. As far as Toph knew, Iroh had thrown it out, or given it to Zuko. She knew Zuko had one now. He'd told her about it the last time she'd visited him, as excited as a little boy on his birthday.
She almost told him that Iroh had given it to her first, but she knew that was spiteful and said nothing instead.
One day, three and a half years after the White Lotus incident, Iroh called Toph downstairs, long before the shop was due to open.
"Ugh," Toph grumbled as she stumbled downstairs. "You know I'm not a morning person. What do you want?"
Iroh took her arm. "Sit."
Toph stiffened. "What's wrong?" she asked. "You're ok, aren't you?"
Iroh patted her elbow. "As 'ok' as I can be at this age," he said. "But I have something for you."
Toph felt her heart leap in her chest. Maybe he hadn't given the White Lotus tile to Zuko after all. "What is it?"
"It's a letter," he said. "From your mother."
Toph's heart stopped.
"I know you've been missing your parents," Iroh said. "Even if you don't talk about them. Over the years I've sent letters to them, telling them about your progress and what you've been doing here. They know all about your life in Ba Sing Se – at least, I hope they do. But I've never received a reply until now."
Toph heard the rustling of paper, and forgot to breathe. "That – I – I should beat you to a bloody pulp," she managed.
"Not just yet," Iroh said. "Let me read you this letter."
He cleared his throat, and then read, in even, slow tones:
It has been many long years since I last saw your face, though I have pictured it nearly every day and wondered what you must look like. Your father tells me you are quite a beauty, or were when he last saw you.
Your friend Iroh's letters have brought great comfort to me, though until this point I have not been able to reply. Unfortunately, my reply follows your father's death.
Toph gave a tiny cry.
Iroh paused, but when Toph said nothing, continued:
I want you to know that even if he was stubborn, even he was angry with you and with the Avatar, he still loved you. He just didn't understand you. And for a long time, neither did I. But your friend's letters have opened a window into your life and who you are, and I think perhaps now I understand you better.
My only hope is that you can forgive us both, and come to see me soon.
Even if all your past memories of us are ugly, please, my dear, remember this: I am so proud of you and all that you have done.
Toph choked back a sob, pressing a fist into her mouth.
"I'm sorry," Iroh said. "I should have told you sooner. I should have found a better – "
She launched herself at him and clung to his neck. "You," she whispered, "Are the most amazing man I've ever met, and I love you. You know that, right?"
He reached out and wrapped his arms around her, hiding his face in her shoulder. "I love you too, Toph," he said. "You are one of the best things that has ever happened to me. This was all I could give you in thanks."
Toph sniffled, pulled back, and wiped her nose on her arm.
"Best not do that when you go visit your mother," Iroh advised. "You'll get into trouble for not minding your manners there."
Toph laughed. "She won't be so proud of me then, huh?"
Iroh patted her knee. "Toph," he said, "It is impossible, knowing you, not to be proud."
Toph hated to leave Iroh alone at the teashop, but he insisted. "This is more important than me," he said. "This is your mother. Go home. Be happy. I wish you all the joy in the world."
"You're getting sentimental in your old age," Toph said, punching him in the shoulder. "Work on that while I'm gone."
"I'll do my best," Iroh promised.
Once again, Toph made the journey alone. It felt strange to be going back to Gaoling, and many times Toph wondered if Iroh wasn't creating a huge lie to make her reconcile with her parents. But Iroh wouldn't do that to her. He cared about her far too much.
She found herself standing back in front of the imposing Bei Fong gate, feeling just as nervous and terrified as she had so many years ago. Everything felt unfamiliar now; trees had fallen and been replaced by little ones, parts of the gate had changed, and the road had been repaved with new stones. Everything felt strange and otherworldly, remnants of a life she only half-remembered.
She banged on the gate with more confidence than she felt, and was greeted by a young and sullen gatekeeper. "Miss Bei Fong," he said, bowing and motioning her inside. "Your mother is waiting."
Heart pounding, Toph stepped across the threshold. She immediately felt as though she was being strangled, as though the air had been sucked out of the place and she was gasping for breath. But she didn't have time to run away; the gatekeeper had taken her arm and was leading her inside.
The hall was long and empty and unfamiliar. The whole house was heavy with silence, everyone in mourning for the master they had lost.
She was guided into a different parlor, this one originally a guest room. The gatekeeper left her there alone, seated primly on a cushion.
In seconds she was on her feet, pacing worriedly across the floor. To occupy her time, she felt for the furniture in the room. It was different again, back to being ostentatious and large. There was only one piece that felt familiar – the cabinet of family history against the wall.
It was the shape of it that was recognizable, though there were subtle differences. She had broken the last one totally with her metal bending; this must be a replacement. Hypnotized, she drew closer to it, tracing the familiar path to her personal scroll.
She expected to find it empty. But her fingers touched paper, soft and silken against her fingers. She hated being so emotional, but the moment she felt it, she started to cry.
This was, of course, the moment her mother opened the door.
Toph turned towards her with a tiny gasp, her eyes wide and hands raised almost defensively in front of her.
"Oh, Toph," said Poppy Bei Fong, and suddenly she was across the room and holding Toph against her chest.
"Mom," Toph whispered, and embraced her in return.
Toph wrote Iroh a letter every single day. She recounted every conversation she shared with her mother, all the laughter and tears and hours of history they had to catch up on.
Poppy asked for Toph's account of stories Iroh had told, and Toph happily gave them, delighting in this chance to share so much of herself. Poppy was wonderful, laughing in all the right places and taking delight in all of Toph's accomplishments.
"This Iroh," Poppy said, "Must be a very special man."
"He is," Toph said warmly. "He's my mountain. He's mighty and powerful, but beautiful and welcoming too. He's funny and wise and willing to give anyone a chance." She smiled and added, "He's the finest man I'll ever know."
Toph awoke one morning to her mother frantically shaking her shoulder.
"Toph," she whispered. "Toph, the Fire Lord is here to see you."
Toph blinked sleepily. "Zuko?" she muttered. "Zuko can wait. Sleep can't."
"Toph, please," Poppy insisted. "He says it's urgent."
Grumbling, Toph grabbed a robe and stumbled down the hall, running into things a few times. She entered the parlor with a groggy yawn and wandered to a couch by Zuko. "What's up, Fire Face?" she asked.
It was a pretty horrible nickname, but generally Zuko took it in stride. Sometimes he seemed to appreciate that something funny could come of the awful history of his scar.
Today was not one of those days. Today, he was dead silent.
Toph flushed deep scarlet. "Sorry," she said. "It just kind of came out. I didn't mean – "
She paused. "What?"
Zuko hesitated again, breathing heavily. "Toph," he said again, weakly.
Peevish now, she snapped, "What?"
There was a lengthy silence, in which Zuko kept drawing deep, shuddering breaths. "Toph," he said once more, his voice cracking. "It's Iroh. He's – "
Toph was running out the door before he could say the final word.
When Toph reached the Jasmine Dragon, the door was barred, and there were flowers everywhere. Toph kicked them viciously out of the way, breaking down the door with her shoulder.
The shop was eerily quiet. The tables were all in place, but there was a thin layer of dust, and the chairs were up on the tables, as though the shop were merely closed for the night.
Toph wandered, dazed, from room to room, waiting for the familiar footsteps to come, waiting to hear Iroh's voice. She ran up the stairs, her feet pounding on the floor. "Iroh," she called, angry and loud. "Iroh! This isn't funny, you know."
Nothing but silence greeted her.
"Iroh," she said, her voice quieter now. "Stop it. Stop it right now."
There was still silence. Nothing moved. The perfect stillness of the house was unnerving.
Toph crept towards Iroh's bedroom and pushed open the door, which swung open without a sound. She stepped inside and felt for the bed. It had been stripped of its sheets; indeed, it seemed every last possession of Iroh's had been removed.
"No!" Toph screamed. "Those were his things! I took care of them! I should've been here to take care of them! I should have – "
She stopped. Drew in a deep, shuddering breath. Exhaled. Breathed in. Choked.
The room suddenly felt suffocating, claustrophobic. Turning on her heel, Toph rushed out, running to her room instead. She collapsed onto her bed and pressed her fists to her eyes, her mind and heart racing.
She wished violently that she could see, just this once, just until she'd explored the house. She needed to know she'd looked everywhere, that she'd exhausted every possibility, before she'd believe he was gone.
She set her hand down on the bed beside her, and felt something round press against her palm. She turned it over and traced it with her fingers – the White Lotus tile.
He'd kept it for her all this time, and now he'd given it back.
She pressed the tile to her chest and sobbed.
By the time Toph arrived in the Fire Nation, she had passed the point of tears – but her sorrow was still obvious. Her face was grim and cold as she walked through the streets of the capital. Her left hand seemed permanently curled into a fist. In that hand she clutched the Lotus tile, the legacy that Iroh had left her.
Mai greeted her on the steps. Toph was glad; Mai's sympathetic silence was more comforting than Katara's hugs would have been. Without asking, Mai guided her to a large chamber inside the palace, cleared of all furniture except for a raised platform at the center of the room. "He's in here," she said, opening the door. "I'll leave you alone."
The door closed behind Toph, and she walked resolutely towards the center of the room.
When she reached out to touch Iroh, she found him to be cold and lifeless. He could have been anyone, if not for the familiar scar she recognized running along his knuckles. He'd cut himself once on a broken teacup, and it had left its mark. She ran her fingers over the scar and bowed her head.
"I shouldn't have left you alone," she said. "I should have known you needed me. After all this time, you'd think I'd have known." Her breath hitched, and she inhaled deeply. "I just – I wish – "
She choked on the words. How could she put a lifetime of feeling into one measly good-bye? How could she express feelings so complicated she couldn't even explain them to herself?
"Look," she said, reaching out to touch his hand. "You're the best man I've ever met, and I love you, you stupid bastard. I hope you died happy and lovely and strong and feeling all the joy in the world, because you don't deserve any less."
It wasn't very eloquent, but that's how he would have liked it. And even if it didn't express her feelings quite the way she wanted, it would be all right.
She had a feeling he'd known anyway.
Slumber, my darling; I'll wrap thee up warm –
Pray that the angels will shield thee from harm.