DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, NOR DO I CLAIM ANY RIGHTS TO IT, ANY OF THE CHARCTERS, OR LOCATIONS IN THIS FAN FICTION STORY. I ONLY OWN THE PLOT.
Toph went on a tour of the palace herself. Of course Zuko could take her, but she had a feeling she had touched a sore spot in her overly sensitive friend that would take quite a while to heal. She walked up the stairs to her room, but didn't stop there. There was a junction at the end of the corridor and she wanted to explore it. She got to the end of the hall and decided to take a right turn, towards the dying sun.
A little mischief would bring her back to her old self. Now, if she could get some time alone with some rocks, she was sure she could manage more than a little mischief. She would go out into the village the next day to see for herself. Maybe she could also convince Sparks to take her to Ember Island. She never really did get that life-changing field trip of hers... She smiled to herself and congratulated her genius. What better way to kill two birds with one stone!
She got to the end of a marble corridor and went down another and another. She was going to love being in the palace. There was just so much to explore!
Zuko stepped out onto the balcony and caught sight of Toph walking casually down a corridor. He smiled to himself. Typical Toph. She couldn't stay in one place for more than a few moments. He would have to ask the servants not to get in her way. A strange request, for sure, but it would keep the peace.
He turned and looked at the painting he'd had done of him and Mai in the garden. She looked lovely with the flower in her hand. Of course she had fought tooth and nail not to have the flower there, but it worked all the same. Zuko had the artist do one painting without it and another with it. That way, they would both get what they wanted. He felt the familiar pain of loss stab his heart and quickly pushed it away. The people at the port were complaining of some strange disease that needed the immediate attention of the Fire Nation's best doctors.
The next day, Toph went to visit her old friend, Zuko's uncle Iroh. She'd heard that he had a new tea shop nearby and she wanted to find out what he'd been up to since the last time they had met.
She'd hoped Zuko would be able to escort her, but he'd already left by the time she woke up. She had to admit that she didn't mind the nice comfortable palace beds, but sleeping in them put a serious damper on her ability to feel any kind of movement. They were too well cushioned. She would have to find a way to catch Zuko the next day.
The tea shop was pretty busy when she stepped in. A serving maid nearly bumped into her. Sweet aromas of Jasmine and Ginseng filled the air. Everyone knew that Iroh's tea was the best in the four nations. Toph smiled as she felt her old friend's familiar steps in the general direction of the kitchen. She sat at one of the tables and asked for the finest tea they had to serve.
"Ah, so you have finally come for a visit, my young friend," came a familiar old voice.
"Well, I heard I could find not only the best pai-sho player, but also the best tea I could ever have in the four nations right here. Imagine the odds," she said with a smile.
Iroh sat across from her after setting her tea before her.
"It is good to see you again. What brings you to the Fire Nation?" he asked in a friendly voice. Toph couldn't imagine him being anything else.
"Well, to be honest, I came to see Sparky." Iroh watched her sip her tea and smiled wider.
"Perhaps you would like to join me in my room upstairs where we can discuss this matter more?" he asked. Toph nodded and took his arm.
The room upstairs was small, but quite homely. There was a little fire going to keep the draughty room warm.
"Please have a seat. I hope you had a good journey," he said and served her another cup of tea.
"It was good. I still prefer to travel on the Avatar's sky bison though," she said with a chuckle.
"I haven't seen Aang in a while. I hear he has a family of his own now. How are the new parents faring? Do you know?"
Toph told Iroh all he knew of her travelling companions and her achievements to that time.
"The first metal bender. That must be big achievement for you."
"It is," Toph admitted, "but I just need a little time doing something other than teaching earth benders to bend metal. It's nice to take some time off. Though if I don't find anything other than exploring the palace to do, I'll go mad!"
"My nephew hasn't been attending to his guest so well, has he?" he asked. They sat in a companionable silence as they sipped their tea leaving the question unanswered.
"He hasn't forgotten," Iroh said breaking the silence. Toph put down her cup and gathered her gown around her if only to find something to do with her hands.
"I know," she said softly, "he loved her."
"Yes he did. What Mai and Zuko shared was special. I wasn't sure what to expect from her, but she made him happy. Since she passed, Zuko hasn't been the same. He hasn't laughed the same way he used to. Something has died inside of him..." he said and looked at the blind girl.
"I thought he seemed different."
"Zuko has a terrible habit of keeping his pain inside. What he doesn't know is that it will destroy him. Already his health is in danger. He works to drown out the pain. He is afraid to face it, but when he does he can then begin to heal."
Another silence prevailed. Toph was knew Zuko was hurting, but she wasn't sure what she could do when Zuko barely let her in as it was.
"What can I do?" she asked.
"You, my little friend, need to help Zuko face his grief. He must rid himself of the pain if he is to become whole again. If he hides his pain, it will consume him. This is a journey that could hurt both of you, but a very necessary one, not just for my nephew, but for the entire Fire Nation."
Toph nodded. Zuko's health was very important and if that meant hurting him, then so be it. She would figure out a way to make him his old self again. He could hide all he wanted, but the stubborn earth bender wouldn't give in until she'd broken through that shell of his. She smiled reassuringly at the old man.
"Leave Fire Lord Moody to me. I know how to get him to behave," she said. Iroh smiled back and patted her shoulder.
"Be careful Toph, and the spirits be with you. Do not give in no matter how bad things get. What courage you have, you should keep with you at all times," he said and rested a hand on her shoulder. Toph reached up and covered his hand with hers. It was nice to have someone to talk to. And now she had a mission too. She wouldn't fail. She couldn't fail.
She thanked Iroh and left to return to the palace. It was getting late and she still needed to find a suitable stone to shape to her liking. The meteor rock Sokka had given her was back in the earth kingdom and there was no way she was going back for it.
She made a detour to the river nearby looking for the best kind of rock. Maybe the smooth ones in the riverbed would provide some comfort. She lifted her skirts and waded in, bending every now and then to pick up a pebble or two.
She found at least five to her liking and waded out of the river again. It was so good to be back in nature's company. She hadn't had much of a chance to experience this in the ten years since the end of the war. It was quite refreshing.
Suddenly, Toph stopped. There was another heartbeat not too far away. It was a strangely familiar heartbeat, and one that brought her defences to the fore, but she couldn't tell why. Whoever it was was also being very light on their feet meaning they did not want to make any noise. Toph put her stones away in the folds of her gown and cautiously took up an earth bending stance. Of course anyone watching her would not be able to tell. She decided to let the intruder make their own judgement of just how vulnerable she was.
She tossed her hair over her shoulder and pretended to bask in the warm sunshine. The other person stayed only a moment longer then quickly left. She relaxed after the intruder had gone a significance distance away. Whoever it was, she had a feeling they would be back and just like her, they would be up for some trouble.