"Thanks," she breathed out, her eyelids having slid closed.
"You're welcome," Zuko replied, pouring his own cup. He paused, caught off guard by this brief moment of serenity in Toph's face. Her eyes closed, a peacefully neutral expression about her...Her hair was a complete mess, of course, and her outfit was...somewhat lacking in pizazz, but in that short-lived moment, Zuko found himself acknowledging that despite Toph's best efforts, she was growing into a fine young woman. The dirt, the untamed hair, and the foul, snarky looks held that fact back, and in turn, drove away unwanted attention. Toph had become a bit of a vagabond more recently, traveling the world to spread the basic teachings of metalbending and recruit those more promising students she found to her academy.
"What's up?" Toph asked, confused by Zuko's stillness.
"Nothing," Zuko mumbled back abruptly, lifting his tea up to his lips.
Toph, eyes still shut, frowned a bit at Zuko's stoic reaction as he sipped. She shrugged his fib off and prepared to move on from savoring the tea's vapors to consuming its flavor. She slurped some down, the hot liquid oddly relieving to her throat. She could detect a hint of mint in the tea, which instantly brought her mind back to the day's event.
"You remembered," she noted the particular tea flavor, her palms glued to the sides of the warm tea cup.
"I did," acknowledged Zuko calmly.
"He, uh-..." Toph paused, drumming her rough-edged nails along the porcelain. "He'd always make this one for me whenever I visited," she recalled quietly. "It would be just like this," she sighed, sliding her dusty, worn feet along the stone floor. The vibrations of the earth showed her the empty tables of the closed tea shop. She took in the stillness of the surrounding streets beyond the building's edges. It must've been pretty late. Seemed about right, given how long the socialities from earlier in the evening had taken. "Quiet. Still," she reminisced, her left big toe finding a small crack to dip itself into. She continued to slide it back and forth, imagining the man's presence. "Tasted the same, too. The tea, I mean." She scratched at her greasy forehead, off-put by Zuko's lack of response. "You nailed it. He taught you pretty well."
"He did," said Zuko, taking in a deep breath and slowly exhaling, at last taking a second sip.
"Um..." Toph folded her legs onto the chair, cross-legged. Leaving her feet on the ground kept sending vibrations of Zuko's statue-like state to her. It was unsettling: his stillness, his apparent lack of emotion. "So, like...who's gonna run this place now?" she slowly asked.
"Jin's the Assistant Manager," Zuko replied. "So I think she'll be in charge now. I know that was what he had wanted, at least."
"Mm..." Toph had nothing to add to that. She couldn't read if Zuko wanted to dwell on these memories right now or if he wanted to bury them for a while. After all, he'd spent all evening the day prior listening to eulogy after eulogy. What more was there to say, really?
"They sent you here to see me, didn't they?" Zuko theorized, his tone dry. Toph's eyes opened at this, and her stomach churned as she drank.
"Wha?" she played it off.
"Toph, we both know you're not exactly the sympathetic type..."
"That's...-! I can be sympathetic," she grunted in protest.
"Aang and Katara asked you to spend time with me."
"Whhh...-" She tensed up, her shoulders rising.
"I thought so," said Zuko with a dull nod.
"OK, sure, but...-" Toph withered back into her seat. "That doesn't mean I don't care, or...-""It's all right," Zuko eased her defense with a wry smile. "I still appreciate it."
"Seriously, it's...no problem. I just sorta...have no idea what to say here."
"Neither do I."
"I mean, I can't even tell how you're doing, Sparky. Are you holdin' up OK?"
"'Cuz you seem really weird. Which is totally fine, it makes sense, I just don't-""Really, I'm all right.""I'm not trying to be too sappy or whatever, but if you need to ramble or...ya know...-"
They both puffed out awkward breaths, each uncertain of where to take the conversation.
Toph scratched at the base of her scalp, traces of dirt and dandruff sinking beneath her fingernails.
"Sorry I didn't make it on time," she mumbled. "One time where all that prim-n'-proper stuff my parents rammed down my throat woulda been put to good use, and I just...-" She blew air at her bangs, dropping her chin into an upturned palm, elbow on the table. She chugged some tea with the other hand.
"You did what you could," Zuko surmised, trying to placate her guilt. "I know you're on the road lately, so I honestly didn't expect you to even show up as soon as you did."
Toph's jaw tilted with some bitterness. So it was somehow 'expected' now that she couldn't be depended on with this kind of thing? This coming off of Katara giving her that passive-aggressive scolding for missing such an important event, too. Maybe Katara had been right - maybe people did think that Toph didn't care. It wasn't like she was proving that theory wrong lately.
"You Uncle was...a good guy," said Toph with melancholy. "He deserved better than...-" She scrunched up her toes with self-directed anger. "-...people missing his funeral."
Zuko could see the sting of guilt in Toph's face. He didn't know what sort of words would console her, or even if she wanted to be consoled about it.
"I'm sure he wouldn't have minded so much," was the attempt Zuko made after a moment's thought. "You're here now. You've paid your respects."
The two of them finished the last of their tea in silence before Zuko poured them a second round.
"How has life been on the road alone?" Zuko asked as he handed Toph her refilled cup.
Toph's nostrils widened to take in the scent of her drink, and she considered Zuko's question. It felt strange, him asking about her in spite of the circumstances. Maybe changing the subject was easier for him. She didn't know.
"It's...all right, I guess," she confessed.
"Just all right?" Zuko carried a touch of surprise in his tone. "I thought you were really enjoying the freedom. Setting your own rules, doing whatever you wanted..."
"Carrying my own weight," Toph added flatly, her head tilted to the side as she leaned back in her seat.
Zuko smirked knowingly at Toph's deadened look.
"It's not all it's cracked up to be, is it?" he noted.
"I dunno," Toph mumbled with uncertainty. "I can't tell if it's 'cuz I miss bossing people around, or...just miss people, maybe, I...-" Trailing off, Toph sighed through her nose and took a swig. "Ya know, I checked back in at the Academy a couple of weeks ago, and...it was weird, everything seemed to be going pretty smoothly."
Toph's brows sunk a bit as she dwelled on this idea.
"Not technically, but, like...it just seemed like they didn't really...need me there. Like they were doing fine with me gone."
"I'd say that's a good thing," Zuko remarked. "It means you've taught them well. Sooner or later, any student has to grow to a point where they're independent on their own."
"Hm." Toph thought back on her own experiences. She'd been quite young, but she could still remember when she no longer needed the assistance of the badger moles that had once helped teach her earthbending. Her mind changed gears, thinking about how talented an earthbender Aang was already, on top of his skills with the other three elements. He certainly no longer needed Sifu Toph, either. Zuko popped his words through her thought bubble.
"I'd think you of all people would understand that just because they don't show it, that doesn't mean they don't miss you."
Toph hummed contemplatively, sipping more tea.
"Is that...sorta where you're at with your Uncle?" she wondered.
"I don't have any regrets," Zuko responded plainly. Toph could tell from the lack of pause that the young Fire Lord had already thought out this subject. "By the time he passed, Iroh was happy. He lived a few years of peace, running this tea shop. He knew I loved him. He knew that he'd...equipped me with all of the knowledge I would need in his absence. Part of me wonders if I was the only thing keeping him from...seeing his wife and son again."
Toph quietly drank some more tea, unable to fully grasp her friend's words. She had no powerful familial bond such as this. When was the last time she had even tried talking with her parents? She couldn't even remember. The closest thing she had found to a wise mentor figure in her life was...well, Iroh. And her casual bond with him paled in comparison to Zuko's, of course. There was simply no comparison. No relationship in her life that could help her match up total empathy to Zuko's situation with his Uncle.
"I don't expect you to have anything to say to this," Zuko calmly pointed out. "But I appreciate that you would come here to listen to me."
"I said it's no big deal," muttered Toph before gulping down the last of her second cup.
There was a pause as Toph slid her fingertip around her cup's edge, her face dulled by the hypnosis of melancholic regret that this conversation was easing her into.
Zuko took note of her lack of focus and posed a question.
"Toph...If you don't mind my asking, have you considered...settling down somewhere?"
Toph's eyelids flickered with surprise at the sudden question as she stirred her senses back into motion.
"Settle down?" she mumbled with disapproval.
"You've been traveling for years now, Toph - by yourself. I can tell just from sitting here with you now that you aren't really as happy as you want me to believe."
Toph's head pulsed with irritation from the headache gradually forming - her hair tied back and taut was maddening within that instant of irritability. She fidgeted her hands in a huff and unbound her shaggy mess of hair. It stuck out in all directions as the tamer parts tumbled over her shoulders. She scratched her fingers through it as she sighed, leaning back in her chair. Zuko was amused in spite of his own fit of attraction to such a dirty girl, seemingly a peasant by her appearance.
"My happiness isn't really your business," she grunted, grumpy wrinkles forming on her face. "You're the Fire Lord, I'm pretty sure you've got more important things to worry about, like...like managing...your...Lordly stuff. Whatever that is. All of that."
Zuko sighed peacefully, shaking his head slightly before intaking more tea.
"What?" asked Toph pointedly.
"Did it occur to you that since Aang and Katara asked you to have this chat with me, they might have requested that I do the same for you?"
There was a pause as Toph's cheeks turned the slightest hue of pink beneath the thin layer of dust caked over them.
"So they think they're matchmakers or some junk now, that it?" she dismissed Zuko's implied claim.
Zuko shrugged, setting his cup down.
"That's...not really what I took away from it, I just thought they were concerned about the both of us."
"Yea, well...I didn't ask for their concern, did I?" Toph crossed one leg over the opposing knee, slouching further back in her chair. "Besides, didn't you have Ms. Gloom-N'-Doom to keep you company?"
An awkward laugh from Zuko as he acknowledged that Toph, in her nickname-riddled way, must have been referring to Mai.
"Uh, I did," he muttered. Toph was piqued by his lack of tonal change. He sounded entirely calm and relaxed about what she had instantly recognized as some breakup of some sort. "But that was a while back. But what about you? I thought you had your sights set on...-" Zuko trailed off when he noticed Toph's face flash with indignation.
"I can't really have my 'sights' set on anyone," she grunted.
"R-right, sorry, I-...""And if you're referring to who I think you're referring to, we're...friends." The last word of that sentence had tumbled out after some hesitation. Toph felt a shiver on her left arm as the cold, black bracelet of stone wrapped around her tricep vibrated briefly. She puffed hot hair at her bangs, tossing them about as she rested her head on linked wrists. "Anyway, he's, like...doing all that diplomatic stuff now. Boring."
"He and I talked a bit while he was here," said Zuko. "If he keeps at it the way he has been, I wouldn't be surprised to see him earning his way into government work."
"You probably want him to contribute to your little project, huh?"
"Ha." Zuko smirked at Toph's disinterest. "In time, the United Republic will be far from 'little.' It will become a reality. And with your school right in the backyard of where we expect to found the capital city, I would think you'd recognize this as an opportunity to put metalbending to good use."
"Say what now?" Toph's words stung with some defense at Zuko's implication.
"Erm..." Zuko realized how he might be coming across and decided to save such a discussion for another time. "Nevermind, it's just something to consider."
Toph laughed through her nostril. Here she was, off-putting one of the leading figures in the entire world, causing him to fumble about for tea to ease her temper.
"No, thanks," Toph declined. "But listen, Sparky. What's up with you? Dancin' left and and right while we're talking, dodging the topic. Some of Twinkle-Toes rubbin' off on you or something?"
"Heh. I'm sure that's happened," Zuko graciously accepted Toph's remark. What she'd intended as a jibe he'd internalized as a compliment. For everything Zuko owed Iroh in helping him find his path in life, he owed Avatar Aang just as much in helping empower him to walk that path.
"I didn't come here to jibber-jabber about politics, or our...romantic histories."
"That's fair. I'm not in the mood to be dwelling on sadness or loss when the death of a good man has brought him to a better place."
"You...you make it sound like you're happy he's dead," Toph huffed.
"I have my good memories with him. I have the knowledge he imparted to me. And I have purpose in my life that he helped me see. I grieved my loss - before you arrived."
And there was the prickling of guilt at Toph's mind again for having missed such an important event.
"I'm at peace with it," Zuko continued. "And it's not as if I get to spend much time with my friends anymore. When was the last time we saw each other? When was the last time we were together like this, just two friends, talking, for the sake of appreciating one another's existence?"
Toph's mouth twisted with regret. She couldn't remember. It wasn't like her life was bustling with social activity, either. She just had been avoiding the entire...'having a life' thing. 'Appreciating one another's existence?' What kind of mumbo-jumbo was this? Why couldn't they just go back to their tea drinking and talking about the good ol' days with Iroh?
"Okay, so...let's do that, then," Toph tried to drop the change of pace. She wanted to go back to a less involved discussion.
There was a quiet that settled over the two of them, both stubborn and confused as to why they had each become so irked by the other.
"So...What do you want to talk about?" asked Zuko.
"Pff, I don't-...What do you want to talk about?"
"Apparently, politics, but...you've already made it clear you're not interested in that."
"So what are you interested in lately?"
"Showing the world what a bad-ass I am," Toph instantly answered. "And cracking a few skulls along the way when people underestimate me."
Zuko smiled, lifting himself from his seat.
"Then maybe we should be having a conversation of a different kind," he coyly decided.
"Huh?" Toph blurted out, befuddled by the way she could sense his confident strides walking off to the front of the shop.
The fluttering of cloth followed in his wake as he pushed out through the store's entrance, leaving Toph to her confusion at the table. Toph's feet saw the two female guards standing outside the front door flick with attention to their boss.
"Lord?" came a perky and enthusiastic voice that Toph's keen ears knew belonged to that flippy, ditsy acrobat friend of Zuko's.
"My swords," Zuko discretely commanded, hands casually folded behind his back. Toph was lightly tapping her foot against the floor to read every gesture she could, from the way Zuko had nodded to his guard to the way she had nodded back, briskly taking off for Zuko's nearby carriage.
"Swords, huh?" Toph called out to the front door, resting her chin on a wrist. "You lookin' to pick a fight with me, Crispy?"
"If that's what you'd like," Zuko replied, poking back into the shop with slight surprise at her hearing - he should know better.
"Now you're talkin' my language," said Toph with a toothy grin. "It's not every day I get to beat some sense into the leader of a country."
"You say it like you've won already," Zuko retorted.
"Uh...? Tsh, sorry to burst your bubble, Your Lordliness, but I'm thinkin' I've kinda been more in practice than you have. I don't have political nonsense and paperwork and junk to weigh me down."
She could hear the light clattering of metal jangling together as Ty-Lee approached with Zuko's arms in hand.
"As I remember it," Zuko sneakily pointed out, "I once had you beat by accident."
"Say what, now?" Toph flapped her mouth in offended disbelief.
"Thank you," Zuko quietly acknowledged his trusted guard, accepting his familiar weapons and scraping their edges together in relaxation. He answered Toph. "Everyone has their weaknesses, Toph. I would think you'd be well aware of that, given how precise you are with your bending abilities."
As he walked toward Toph, she leaned back in her chair again, arms crossed, her expression dull.
"It'd be unfair to fight you and rely on my bending," Zuko laid down some bragging - he knew this would incite a reaction out of the girl. "A little fire to those feet of yours, and, well...-" He shrugged with nonchalance. This conversation needed some spark.
"Pff!" Toph flicked up her ankle, using the earth at her feet to slide her chair out. She rose up, hands still wound tight across her chest. "I wasn't ready when you did that, and that...that was a long time ago," Toph spat out irritably. Zuko was amused at the way she leaked out her insecurity the moment he tried to imply she had any weakness. "Besides, you did that by accident, like you said," she pointed out. She could still faintly remember the stinging pain Zuko had caused her that day, years back. "Thanks for reminding me about it, because I don't think I ever paid you back for that, did I?"
Zuko laughed, sheathing his swords up over his back.
"He was right, you are too easy to rile up," Zuko muttered in observation with a slight, humored nod.
Toph's cheeks sizzled with slight embarrassment, partly because this fact was too - she'd gotten swiftly defensive - but also because she wanted to know what 'he' Zuko was referring to.
"You wanna spar with me, Sparky?" Toph marched to Zuko, making sure to frown her face at him. "'Cuz I'll wipe that cocky Fire Lord smile right off your face, and give you a black eye to match the scarred one." She leaned in toward him slightly in an effort to intimidate, but he didn't shrink back an inch.
Zuko's eyebrows lifted up, startled at her sudden ferocity. That burning passion that glowed from those blank eyes reminded him of himself years ago, dead-set on proving his worth to the world. Proving his worth to his father.
In that instant, it clicked in Zuko's head: maybe Toph's journey around the world proclaiming her knowledge of metalbending, using the Beifong name as her banner...Was it all, deep down, not unlike Zuko's years spent hunting the Avatar? All an effort at trying to show the world, 'Here I am.'
All an effort at trying to show dear old judgmental Dad, 'I'm worthy. Look at the honor I'm bringing to our family.'
If that was the case, then Zuko considered what he, or Aang, Katara, Sokka...what Toph's old friends had brought into her life - likely the same sort of thing Iroh had brought into his.
"Well?" Toph snapped impatiently, her bare foot practically pounding on the stone floor.
"I've...insulted your honor, haven't I?" Zuko played off his own baiting remarks.
"Not as much as I'm gonna insult...your...face," Toph grumbled. "With pounding. And...stuff." Such an eloquent and dignified woman, befit of the company of a royal Lord.
"You realize my...'face'...has already been insulted," Zuko sighed out. His feelings weren't hurt in the slightest - his scar was something he'd grown proud of, in fact - but if Toph was going to readjust to living around people, as he knew she'd inevitably need to, she would need to learn to start showing a bit of tact.
"Er...-" Toph scratched her finger at her dirty, loosened hair and huffed through wide nostrils. "Fine, go and...make fun of my eyes, or whatever. Fair's fair."
"It's not very Lord-like to go teasing someone about something like that. Especially a woman's looks, I've learned."
Toph snorted a laugh.
"There you go, calling me a 'woman' or some junk. Bleeding hog-monkeys, Zuko, have you met Toph Beifong?"
"I have. And what I've seen, if she cleaned herself up a bit, it'd be very apparent that she was, in fact, a 'woman.'" His words had some smarm to them, but his voice was gravelly and just as dry as Toph would expect.
In that moment of proximity, Toph was uncomfortable with the way Zuko's heart-rate was flickering about. She knew what that change in heartbeat meant.
She stabbed a finger into his chest.
"Just because I'm blind doesn't mean I can't tell when you're ogling me, ya know."
"Egh," Zuko grunted out. "I wasn't...-""And I know when you're lying, too, remember?"
Zuko breathed out tiredly at Toph's accusations. There was no use arguing with her. Although now he was second guessing whether or not studying the details of her sour, face counted as 'ogling.' Her head was like a glorious porcelain tea pot that had been left outside in the rain, with mud and muck caked over it.
"I was looking right at your face," Zuko stated plainly.
Toph, her finger still pressed against her friend, paused, eyes squinted as she studied his biology in that moment. He was telling the truth.
"Mmph." She let her hand drop in admittance. "So you do have more manners than that Meathead does...I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Not everyone's as much of a numbskull as he is..."
Toph was still right up near Zuko, invading his personal space. She had a hand on her hip, her expression cynical with a hint of curiosity.
"So we gonna match bending wits, or what?" Toph growled.
"You have nothing to prove to me," Zuko attempted to placate. A friendly spar would be one thing, but with how excitable this woman could get - not to mention how powerful he knew she could be - he worried things could get out of hand. The last thing he - or she - needed was the inadvertent destruction of the building that represented Iroh's legacy.
"Darn right, I don't," Toph was quick to agree, still asserting dominance. "I'd kick your ass."
"If that's what you need to tell yourself to feel better," Zuko shrugged off her persistent verbal pushing.
"I don't need to tell myself, I know it's a fact." said Toph with spite. It irked her that he wouldn't just give in and agree with her. Sokka always did. He'd always go along with boosting her ego. "I'm the world's greatest earthbender, aren't I?"
"One of the best," said Zuko calmly.
"Uh, ha. No. The best." Toph shoved Zuko by the shoulder, at last putting some distance between the two of them.
"I don't think that's something that can be decided upon so simply. And besides, does it really matter?"
Toph scowled at Zuko's insistence on not succumbing to her self-proclamation.
"Of course it matters. Someone has to be the best. Someone has to be able to stand on top and show the rest of the world how it's done."
"Hm." Zuko dusted off the dirt Toph's crusty palm had laid on his casual clothing. "You know, Toph, when you put it like that, it...-"
"What? Spit it out."
"It's just that, well...-" Zuko shrugged, his eyebrows lifting with contemplation. "That sounds a lot like how my father looked at things."
Toph's expression twitched with a blend of uncertainty and irritation. That was a foul comparison. Toph was nothing like that psychotic creep that had tried to burn down the Earth Kingdom, casting aside all of his loved ones and pushing them away, all for the sake of pursuing power, prestige, and reputation. Ah. OK, she could...sort of see what he was going for there.
She'd been lost in thought just long enough for Zuko to put his dry hand on her shoulder in a reaffirming pat that caused her flinch.
Human contact was something that, as of late, she'd grown accustomed to only experiencing as a sign of conflict. Her brain fluttered with memories of the old sensations part of her clung to - sensations that had been new to her at the time, in lieu of parents afraid to touch their child for fear of - what, breaking her supposedly fragile self?
Katara's soft fingers tidying her hair, Aang's pats on her back, Sokka's hand leading her around...Group hugs.
"Toph, I can respect what you've been doing for the past few years," Zuko explained, bringing her back to the present. "And it reminds me of what I was like, years ago: traveling the world, keeping people at a distance...Trying to make my family proud. I understand that. But has your father shown you love, and respect?"
"Wh-...? Hey, whoa, there, Pal." Toph popped her shoulder up, dropping Zuko's friendly touch. "My family life's none of your...-""I invited you here because of my family life," Zuko pointed out.
Like seeing a door creaking open, Zuko watched Toph's scornful face flinch with the bottled up emotions he could imagine she stubbornly kept buried.
"No," she flatly answered, those pale eyes conveying a deep-seated rage, like charcoal embers. "He hasn't."
"Neither did mine," Zuko eagerly sympathized. "A real parent - or friend, or family member - is going to give you those things without you needing to earn them. Without needing to prove yourself 'worthy.' That was one of the biggest lessons my Uncle ever taught me. Once I realized that, I faced my father. I confronted him."
"Yea, bet that worked out great." Toph's sarcasm rang of days long gone, when she was a member of the traveling act that was Aang's convoy. She really was still that stubborn, pushy twelve year-old, it seemed. Zuko figured that until she broke off these chains that were holding her back, she might stay that way. He didn't like that idea. If he, after the way he'd hurt so many people, could shatter those chains and grow up, surely this filthy young woman could do the same.
"Have you confronted your father yet?"
Toph blew air at her bangs.
"Not in a long time. And when I did, it didn't exactly go the way I'd hoped."
"Time has a way of changing things, Toph." Zuko's distracted mind couldn't help but consider how this adage also applied to the physiology of the person standing right in front of him. "Perhaps you should confront him again. It's not like he...became a deluded warlord, and tried to take over the world, or...-"
Toph laughed weakly. It was the first time this whole talk that Zuko had seen some authentic vulnerability leak through Toph's stern physique. He recollected Katara's recent words on the girl, advised to him during the conversation in which he was asked to meet with Toph.
"I know she can be hard to deal with some times - you know how stubborn she is - but especially after the last time I saw her, I just have this feeling that she's hurting down on the inside somewhere. She's a good girl at heart. I think Aang was the first person to see that, but it's up to all of us to keep that in mind. I think that we're the only family she has at this point."
"Would it make any difference if the Lord of the Fire Nation showed up at the Beifong doorstep to vouch on your behalf?" Zuko offered. Toph couldn't tell if he was joking or serious, his words always crackling and dry, like a campfire.
"I, uh...think I can handle it," said Toph with a small, entertained smile. "I'm a 'woman' and stuff now, apparently, remember?"
"You are," Zuko conceded.
"Although..." Toph sniffed in air and scratching her nose thoughtfully. "I do like the idea of the Fire Lord being my personal escort to go visit my old man."
"So you accept the offer?"
"I dunno, Zuko - were you serious?"
"Toph, you're an old friend." Zuko smiled and put his hand back on Toph's shoulder. She didn't push it off this time. "It would be my honor."