“For the last time Toph, no!”
“Oh come on Zuko, I promise it will be fun!”
Zuko, son of Firelord Ozai, had been trying to come up with Aang’s next training session when Toph calmly walked up and blurted out that she wanted to go on a fieldtrip with him. What’s worse was that she wanted to go find Uncle Iroh. Taken aback by the sudden and random idea, Zuko nearly burned Toph with stray fire again which incited annoyed remarks from the little girl.
“How can me going to meet my uncle – who probably hates me right now – with you possibly be fun?”
“Umm… you get to have a break from teaching Aang firebending?”
“Go bother someone else, Toph.”
“There’s no one else here, remember? Aang and Katara are off practicing their fancy waterbending, and Sokka and Suki went to the market, err… at least I think they did. Anyway, I just want to thank him for that time he helped me when I was separated from the group.”
By this time, Zuko had stopped practicing Aang’s firebending routine and was facing Toph.
“Why don’t you go by yourself then?”
“I need you to go with me. I don’t know how to find Iroh.”
“And you think I do? And even if I did, I wouldn’t go with you.” Zuko turned his head away from Toph in what could only be interpreted as shame. “I would be the last person he wants to see right now.”
“You don’t know that. And even if he didn’t want to see you, are you going to avoid him like that your entire life? I ran away from my parents too, but you don’t see me going, ‘Boohoo. I’m the last person my parents want to see.’”
“It’s not the same!”
“Yes, it is the same! Why won’t you go with me? You clearly had no problem going with everyone else. Heck, you were the one who convinced Katara that she needed to go find that person who killed her mother!”
“That was necessary.”
“So is this! Ugh, you’re not even trying to think about it. Why can’t you just give your stubborn butt up and leave with me?”
“If you want to go so bad, then go with Sokka or Katara. Take Momo if you want."
Toph huffed loudly.
“You don’t understand!” she yelled and stomped off toward the beach, carving angry footprints into the ground. It wasn’t fair! First Aang, then Sokka, and even Katara went on their own little enlightening trips with Zuko, but he didn’t even think to reconsider her offer. Since she had Zuko all to herself today, she had thought it was the perfect time to brief him about her travel plans. Maybe Momo will be next in line for a friendly fieldtrip with Zuko, but not Toph.
Toph felt soft sand hug her toes and she stopped walking. Sand had always made her uncomfortable: it prevented her from seeing clearly and even reminded her of that time she let Appa get kidnapped. She knew the group didn’t hold a grudge against her for that; and although she would never admit it, the guilt still nagged at her heart. The earthbender plopped down on the beach and sighed, imagining the wind carrying her irritated breath away. It was more than just thanking Iroh for the tea. She wanted to give Zuko a chance to mend his relationship with his uncle too. Toph knew that she might be putting her nose into others’ business where she didn’t belong, but she liked Zuko and wanted him to be happy. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t with the group when he had been actively chasing Aang, but Toph had warmed up to the firebender almost immediately. He had sacrificed many privileges to give so much to the team, so she thought helping him meet his uncle again was the least she could do to say thank you. She never forgot the way Iroh spoke lovingly and proudly of his nephew and almost envied the near father-son relationship. The close relationship she never had.
Toph was suddenly taken out of her thoughts when she sensed the vibrations in the ground as Zuko approach her.
“Go away,” she mumbled.
“Look, I just want you to understand something,” started Zuko. He had felt bad about lashing out at Toph like that and knew that she had a point: her idea deserved at least some consideration from him.
“I am not in the mood for a lecture,” retorted Toph.
“I’m not that good at lectures. That’s what Uncle is good at.”
When Toph didn’t reply, Zuko sighed and sat down next to her.
“When we were in Ba Sing Se, Uncle used to tell me about a tea shop that he always wanted to visit. It was in the Earth Kingdom, but not in Ba Sing Se where we opened up our own tea shop. I don’t know if you know, but our own tea shop was pretty successful. People would line up to taste Uncle’s tea….”
His words strayed off when he caught Toph’s bored expression – clearly meant for him to see.
“A-Anyway, when we were hiding in the Earth Kingdom, he would sometimes ramble on and on about this tea shop, praising it, almost worshipping it. He talked so much about it that I know almost as much about it as he does. They have this great jasmine tea that seems to heal your inner fire, and this other type of tea that-”
“What’s your point?” interrupted Toph. If Zuko was here to try to substitute the trip for finding Iroh with stories about him, she was not going to buy it.
“Sorry…. My point is… that I think I know where Uncle Iroh might be.”
Toph perked up at this unexpected piece of information, but still kept a skeptical look plastered on her face.
“Oookay, I’m listening.”
“I’m really not sure, but my best guess is that he might have gone to visit that tea shop after he broke out of prison. He really seemed to admire it, and I can’t think of any other place Uncle might have headed to. But even if he did, there’s no guarantee that he’s still there, and there are loads of things I don’t know about Uncle. He could have gone straight to the South Pole for all I knew.”
“Well the good news is that I don’t care. It’s worth a try isn’t it?”
“Yeah….” Zuko replied grudgingly. He cringed a little at Toph’s now-showing, overly eager smile. He couldn’t bear to think that he might end up disappointing her with flimsy information.
“Wait, let’s get one thing straight. I told you that I wanted you to understand something.”
Toph smiled even broader and nodded her head, indicating to Zuko that she was all ears. Zuko sighed and continued.
“You weren’t there, but Uncle and I didn’t exactly part on good terms. I- I even called him a ‘foolish old man’ when he was prison….”
A short giggle escaped Toph, but was immediately stifled by her hands.
“Sorry. Just thought it sounded exactly like what you would say. Please continue.”
With an irritated expression he knew Toph couldn’t see, Zuko resumed his story.
“Back in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se, I helped Azula fight Aang when I should have done the opposite. I don’t know what came over me, I was just so confused. Uncle defended Aang and Katara until they were able to get away. Then, he surrendered himself to the Dai Li. You should have seen the look on Uncle’s face before he looked away from me. He looked so disappointed. Disappointed is a weak word, he looked so…so… ashamed, I don’t know! The point is that he looked like he didn’t know me anymore. And he was right. I didn’t know who I was then. Well, at that time I thought I knew, but now that I look back, I didn’t. Or, I did. No, arrgh!!”
Toph put her arm on Zuko’s and genuinely smiled at her new friend.
“I understand. Remember what I said about me running away from my parents? I had the same thought as you. I thought I had disappointed them, let them down. But Katara showed me real love – love that I’ve craved from my parents – and convinced me to write a letter to them, which I did. With Katara’s help, of course. But it made me feel much better knowing I’ve communicated with them somehow. I don’t know your uncle as much as you do, but if he is the same old man that I’ve talked to, then I’m sure he is ready to forgive you.”
Strangely enough, Toph’s words reassured Zuko’s inner turmoil just a little bit. He still wasn’t entirely sure if he was ready to see Uncle face to face, but he felt ready to at least set out and help Toph find him. But still, he wasn’t so certain….
“But we can’t just leave the others. Aang still needs to train his firebending and-“
Toph jumped up and stamped a foot into the sand, causing some of it to bounce up and shower down on Zuko.
“Aang has been practicing firebending every day since you showed up. I think he can afford a break now and then. He can practice waterbending or meditate or whatever air-thingy he does while we’re gone. I’m going to go pack.”
Trying to hide her excitement under a mask of serene charisma, Toph forced herself to walk slowly back to the Firelord family’s house instead of sprinting like she ached to do. Once there, though, she tore through her belongings trying to find everything she needed for the trip, making the room look like an airbender flew by in an air scooter. Being a light packer to begin with, it did not take long before she ended up with the meteorite bracelet from Sokka, a few pieces of food, and some water. Clothes and hygienic supplies were unimportant to her. Then she sat impatiently in Appa’s saddle until Zuko arrived with his own sack.
“I didn’t know we were leaving now,” he said.
“You have your sack don’t you?”
“Well yeah, but…. Toph, don’t you think we should wait until the others get back?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve written them a note.”
“But you can’t write.”
The ground beneath Zuko’s feet jumped up and flung him into the air into Appa’s saddle, stealing his breath and almost giving him a heart attack.
“Appa, yip yip!” shouted an ecstatic Toph. Appa groaned and hoisted immediately into the sky, nearly throwing Zuko off the saddle.
“Wait! Let me hold the reigns!”
Toph, laughing, handed Zuko Appa’s reigns without any complaints and hollered,
“I’m going on a fieldtrip with Zuko!”
Zuko groaned and rolled his eyes. He hoped he wouldn’t regret his decision. Like that has never happened before.
The flight was surprisingly eventless. So eventless
that Toph grew bored and started questioning Zuko about everything from his
complicated family relationship to his most secret, strangest habits. Zuko,
being the unenthusiastic teenager that he was, answered a handful of them.
“By the way, why the sudden change of heart?” she asked. “I was dying to ask you back at the beach, but I was afraid that you would change your mind again.”
Zuko didn’t answer, and for a moment Toph thought he didn’t hear her.
“I said, why the sudden change of-“
“I heard you the first time,” Zuko replied. Then he sighed and said, “I don’t know really. I guess I thought you were right in a way. I don’t want to sever my ties with Uncle, but I don’t know if either of us are ready to see each other yet. And your story about you and your parents kind of got the point across, you know, with the communication thing and all. It was the same with my father. He never listened, and I never talked. We never really communicated now that I think about it. He would always just give me and Azula orders, and we would follow them. I don’t want it to be like that with Uncle. I want to be able to communicate with him, and I thought that maybe this trip is just what I need.”
“Geez, I asked why you changed your mind, not your whole life story,” muttered Toph, which Zuko chose to ignore. “Where are we going, by the way? I don’t think you mentioned which Earth Kingdom city this tea shop was in.”
“It’s not really a city, actually. It’s a large town called Gaoling. I heard they were pretty famous for their earthbending tournaments.”
Toph, who was lying down with all her limbs spread out, sat erect and leaned out of the saddle toward Zuko as close as she could.
“Hold it, hold it. Gaoling? We’re going to Gaoling?”
Zuko raised an eyebrow at Toph’s sudden reaction.
“Yeah, why? Do you have a problem with that?”
“That’s my hometown!” she exclaimed.
“Wow. That’s great, you get to meet your parents, then!” Zuko commented innocently. Toph groaned loudly to tell Zuko that this was not the greatest thing that could happen to her.
“Hello, I ran away? I wrote them a letter to tell them I’m alive, not to tell them that I’m skipping back home. I’m not ready to see them yet.”
“Well that sounds familiar.”
“I have a feeling that you’re doing this on purpose.”
“Well, it’s too late to go back now because I see the town,” Zuko announced. Indeed, the tall mountain ranges leveled out to reveal the large town of Gaoling. “It looks like a really nice place.”
“Yeah, I feel nostalgic already,” grumbled Toph.
“Maybe we should leave Appa at your home and start our search from there?” suggested Zuko. “This is a Fire Nation-free town, so we should be fairly safe from recognition.”
“No! Don’t go near my house! There should be a low cliff near the west side of the town. It’s where I learned to earthbend. Appa will be safe there,” said Toph.
Zuko shrugged, then remembered that Toph couldn’t see him shrug, so he agreed that they will leave Appa on the west cliff. The sky was growing dark by the time they entered the city, so Zuko proposed that they find a place to sleep for the night. Toph jokingly remarked that she couldn’t see anyway so what did it matter, but agreed to start the search the next morning ‘for Zuko’s sake.’ In response to Zuko’s question about the whereabouts of her home, however, Toph vehemently insisted that they stay away from her house.
“Well, what do you think we should do then? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly stocked on cash at the moment!” argued Zuko.
“Well I can bend us some shelter and we could camp out for a night. I don’t mind sleeping outside.”
“Well I do! I’m not going to sleep on the ground because of your stubbornness.”
“Fine then. My parents own a hundred inns in this town. We could just go to one of them for the night.”
And that’s exactly what they did. Toph led Zuko to the farthest inn from her home and stated the name Beifong along with her household emblem, which instantly landed the two with two large suites with luxury bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, and a great view of the mountains that harbored the loveliest sunsets. Their rooms were right next to each other so they could consult each other right away if anything should happen. Once they both settled down, Toph came to visit Zuko in his room to have a “friendly chat” to which she did not accept no for an answer. And so the two were sitting side by side somewhat awkwardly on Zuko’s large, feather bed: Zuko shirtless with a towel hung over his neck (she couldn’t see him anyway) and Toph in her usual clothes swinging her legs off the side. After a minute of awkward silence, Zuko decided to break the uncomfortable atmosphere.
“So, uh, I didn’t know you came from such a rich family.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t exactly look the rich-little-miss-prissy-girly type do I?”
Zuko smiled, then realized that Toph couldn’t see his smile either. He has got to get used to expressing things in words around this girl!
“Sorry. I just smiled. I keep forgetting that you, you know….”
This time, it was Toph’s turn to smile.
“That’s alright. I mean, it gets pretty annoying sometimes when I can’t see people’s expressions, but when they get real emotional – and I mean happy or sad or angry, you get the point – I can sort of feel their heartbeat increase. That way, I can literally feel what people are, well, feeling. It’s sort of like the way I can tell when people are lying.”
“That’s amazing!” And he meant it. This would have been a great power to have during all those times Azula lied to him.
“It is, isn’t it?” admitted Toph, her grin widening even more. “Except your crazy sister. She is one good liar.”
At the mention of Azula, Zuko’s smile disappeared.
“I made a mistake, didn’t I? Your heart just skipped a beat – literally!” said Toph.
“No, you’re fine. It just got me thinking about family… about Uncle. I still don’t know what to say when I meet him. If I meet him.”
“You haven’t thought about what you want to tell him yet?”
“No, I have a billion things I want to say! First of all, I want to ask for his forgiveness. Then, I- I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it after that. What if he doesn’t accept my apology? What then?”
This was true. Back in the Fire Nation when he had stood up to his father during the eclipse, he had confidently declared that he would join the Avatar… and ask for Uncle’s forgiveness. But when he didn’t find Uncle in his cell that day, all of Zuko’s courage seemed to deflate like a Fire Nation war balloon. The numerous simulations he had run in his head of how to talk to Uncle turned out to be in vain; and now that a second chance was being given again, Zuko wasn’t sure if he would be able to do it.
Toph turned her head toward Zuko, and looked straight where she thought his eyes should be. Even though the girl was blind, Zuko felt like her cloudy eyes could see right through his soul.
“Like I told you, the old man loves you and you know that. To be really honest, I’m kind of jealous of you and your uncle’s relationship. He always seemed to look out for you from a distance. I know my parents loved me; they would protect me and buy me things, supply me with anything and everything I needed – even bodyguards, but I never got what I really wanted. Freedom. It just wasn’t the type of love I wanted, you know? Your uncle let you choose your own path and was there for you when you needed him, but my parents tried to tear me away from the path I chose. So I tore my parents away I guess….”
“Looks like you and I were on the same boat. I just wanted my father to love me just as he did Azula, and you wanted your parents to listen to you which was the kind of love you were asking for,” said Zuko. It was amazing how these words just came out of his mouth. Talking about his family was not the most comfortable subject for Zuko.
“You know, my parents would frequently argue about what was best for me. Sometimes, Mother would say even earthbending lessons were too dangerous for me. ‘What if she gets hit by a rock?’ she would say. But Father was convinced that a lady needed a talent. Of course, he preferred piano lessons and art, but because I’m blind he settled for earthbending. I think he meant for me to go only as far as levitate rocks or create little dolls out of earth or something. I was always the helpless little girl to them. Maybe if I was born a son, things would have been different….”
Toph quickly looked away as she felt her voice crack and wiped away the tear that threatened to fall. She didn’t know why she was crying about her parents all of a sudden like a baby. Maybe it was because she found herself back in her hometown in one of her parents’ inns. Whatever the reason, she felt pathetic for showing tears, but quite good to let it all out on Zuko. Luckily, Zuko had the grace to ignore her quiet snivels.
“Sucks to have a complicated family, doesn’t it?” whispered Zuko.
“Yeah….” Toph agreed. Without warning, she punched Zuko’s arm hard and said, “We never ever speak of this again. Not to Aang, not to Katara or Sokka, and not to each other. Nobody. Got it?”
Zuko, rubbing his arm, almost nodded, but caught himself and grumbled, “Fine.” He couldn’t help but think that Toph was the one who brought the subject up, but brushed the thought away. She jumped down from the bed and started walking toward the door. Without turning around she said,
“Thanks for listening to me ramble about my parents. I know you’ve had it harder than I have.”
“No one’s problems are worse than others. We all just have to deal with our own pain and help others ease them when they need it.”
Toph grinned and said, “You’re beginning to sound like Twinkletoes. Or your uncle. By the way, don’t worry about him, Hothead, I’m sure he’s ready for you. See you in the morning.” And she finally left the room to leave Zuko to his thoughts.
When he heard Toph’s door close in the hall, Zuko walked over to the window and looked out onto the lively town. Faraway, he saw the Earth Rumble Stadium brightly alight, and closer, he saw the twinkle of shop lights and the warm glimpse of fires in homes. One of these buildings housed Uncle. Or at least Zuko hoped they did. In one corner of his mind, however, he hoped they wouldn’t find him in Gaoling. Despite Toph’s continuous reassurances, Zuko was not ready to face him just yet. He had just recently joined the Avatar’s team and had achieved nothing yet, nothing to redeem himself. It seemed too early to ask for forgiveness.
And so with a heavy heart, Zuko threw himself onto his soft bed – the first since his voluntary departure from the Fire Nation – and fell blissfully asleep.
The next day was spent searching for the tea shop
Iroh was thought to have been in. Zuko remembered the name as being The Jade
Dragon – a name that inspired Iroh in the name of his own tea shop in Ba Sing
Se. The Jade Dragon turned out to be not that famous a tea shop. In fact, once
Toph and Zuko finally found the shop located in a corner secluded from the main
streets, they were quite doubtful that they had found the right place. The shop
looked nearly dilapidated with its greying sign and faded paint; there was no
door, just an archway with a dirty, brown curtain hanging from it indicating
that it was the entrance, and one window with grime coated heavily on the
glass. It was so far away from the busy activities of Gaoling that the place
was very quiet. Zuko randomly thought that maybe that was a good thing for tea
“This is your uncle’s favorite tea shop? Gee, I wonder if it’s still in business,” asked Toph with a raised eyebrow. “It’s so quiet and the place feels so weak. And what’s that funny smell?”
“I told you he’s never been here before, he’s just heard of it. I’m sure even he was not expecting the place to be like this….” Zuko trailed off in disbelief at what they had found. Surely, they had come to the wrong place? But the sign, although faint, clearly read ‘The Jade Dragon’. Maybe he remembered the name wrong?
But before he could think to turn around, Toph was already flinging the curtains open and entering the shop.
“Well, there’s someone inside so we might as well go in. Hello? We’re looking for a man named Iroh.”
Zuko nearly slapped himself on the forehead. Of course she had to be so blunt about it! What if he’s not there? Or worse, what if he’s there? Panic welled up inside Zuko as the reality of potentially meeting his uncle finally hit him. He just wasn’t ready!
Zuko peeked through the filthy windows, but all he could make out were a few shapes such as the green clothing Toph wore. It was as if he was looking through mosaic glass. He gave up on the window and slightly shifted the curtains to get a better look inside. The shop was expectedly small and tightly packed with only four tables: two four-person tables and two two-person tables. The walls looked like they were once a creamy white, and the room was lit up by only one source of light on the ceiling. In the middle of the shop, he saw Toph speaking to the shopkeeper. He was a skinny man with a scraggly grey goatee who looked supposedly older than his actual age. His once-green apron hung on his body like the branches of a willow; his back was a little stooped which was probably due to the low ceiling.
“There must be a thousand men named Iroh!” he heard the shopkeeper complaining, “And I have never heard of this name before. Why would you come to this corner shop to look for him?”
“Well, we heard that he knew about your shop, The Jade Dragon? This is The Jade Dragon, right?”
“Correct, but as you can see, business has not been well. Not many people come here because nobody appreciates good tea anymore. They all go to those fancy coffee shops in the main streets to impress their ladies. They think tea is for old people like me.”
“Well, this Iroh would have appreciated your tea. Come on, rack that ancient brain of yours; do you remember anyone that has visited recently that has actually really, really enjoyed your tea?”
Surprisingly, the shopkeeper seemed to think hard for a moment. He opened his mouth a few times as if to say something, but then always closed it without a word. After much eye-rolling from Toph, he finally said,
“I do remember this one customer. He came yesterday, in fact. I did not ask his name for it is rude to ask customers, especially these days with the war going on. Gaoling may be safe, but people are still suspicious; they don’t give you their names, and even if they do they may be fake ones. But there was this one fellow. He had an elegant blue robe on that’s why I remember. Anybody who can afford that kind of robe do not come all the way down here to drink tea, you know. But this fellow was quite humble. He told me that he had always wanted to visit The Jade Dragon and that my tea was as fine as he had imagined – not like those watery teas they sell in Ba Sing Se. We talked about the subject for quite a while, actually. He and I shared our knowledge of how to brew the best tea. Did I tell you that he used to run his own tea shop in Ba Sing Se? I was so delighted! It is not often that I have customers, and it is less often that I have enjoyable customers!”
“That must be him! Did he say anything about coming back?” Toph asked.
“You’re in luck. I invited him back tonight after the shop closes – it doesn’t really matter, but I’m still officially in business, you know – to taste my rarest and tastiest tea. It can only be brewed from a flower that grows in icy climates, so it has this fresh, cool, minty taste to it. I could have offered it to him yesterday, but I am against drinking so many different types of tea at once. It mixes and ruins the taste. So, he will be coming back tonight hopefully to drink some tea with me. Unfortunately, he said this will be his last day in Gaoling, then he will be moving on. To where, I did not ask. So, you are welcome to come back tonight and join us if you wish. You and your friend outside.”
Zuko jumped when the shopkeeper looked him straight in the eye. Out of embarrassment, he quickly closed the curtains, leaned against the shop wall, and hid his face in his hands. So Uncle wasn’t here now, but he had been. Where was he going after tonight? Zuko had so many unanswered questions and incomprehensible emotions. What was this feeling: excitement? Fear? Nervousness? Once again, his mind went blank when he simulated his future talk with Uncle, but time to collect himself wasn’t given to him as Toph burst through the curtains with a huge grin on her face.
“I know you heard everything, so looks like we’re up for some tea with Iroh tonight!”
“I’m not so sure about that, Toph.” Zuko’s words were mumbled as he still had his face buried in his hands.
“Suck it, Zuko. I’m not the biggest fan of tea sipping either, but we’re coming back here tonight. I didn’t come all the way to Gaoling to go back empty-handed when we just found a sure clue that Iroh was here.”
“Are you going to give me a face full of rocks if I refuse?”
“I’ll give you more than a face full of rocks, you crybaby. Stop whining and just accept that we’re seeing your uncle tonight.”
Toph’s mood had been skyrocketing since she talked to the shopkeeper because it looked like she would be able to fulfill her goal of not only properly thanking Iroh, but also helping Zuko come to terms with his uncle. Her fieldtrip idea had been a fantastic one after all. Nothing could wipe the mile-long smile on her face, not even if Firelord Ozai came and burned Gaoling to the ground. Okay, maybe she would be upset if Gaoling was burned to the ground, but she was that pleased.
“Toph, you are one smart polar bear dog,” she murmured to herself.
“What’s that?” asked Zuko.
“Nothing. Hey, let’s go see if there’s anything cool downtown. I’ll give you a great tour of Gaoling to make you feel better.”
Zuko was not in the most festive mood, but he couldn’t bring himself to say no to her suggestion. If it was Aang, he would have snapped at him instantly saying that this was not a time to play. But Aang was the Avatar with responsibilities to see to. Toph was… Toph. He didn’t see any harm in following her around the town for the day. They had nothing better to do anyway.
And so Zuko allowed himself to be led by Toph through the streets of her hometown, who pointed out the main and sub attractions of the place. Contrary to the corner where The Jade Dragon was located, the main streets of Gaoling were bustling with life: people of all shapes and sizes walked busily and merrily as they went about their daily business or some leisurely activity. Zuko and Toph became part of the crowd as they went eye-shopping in the market, picking out gifts for the team that they never bought. The two came across a group gambling and tried their luck on some dice. They came out with three easy victories (with a little help from Toph of course) and Toph happily swept the money into her pockets. Using their winnings, Zuko bought some egg custard tarts and dumplings for lunch, which they ate sitting on the steps of someone’s front door before they were chased away by the homeowner. Zuko found a mask vendor and described the various kinds of masks displayed there to Toph. There was a Blue Spirit mask identical to his, and he told Toph the story of when he used it to salvage Aang from Zhao. He took the mask and let Toph’s fingers slide over it, giving her a sense of what the mask looked like. Toph’s unseeing eyes were sparkling with wonder and her lips shaped the word “wow” as she pictured in her mind the Blue Spirit rescuing Aang from the bad Fire Nation general. Suddenly, her head jerked up as she seemed to remember something and said,
“Zuko, follow me. There’s this really cool weapons store that my parents used to never let me go near. Now that I’m free in the streets, I want to go check it out.”
Toph giggled and set off toward the direction of the store, resisting the urge to earthbend all these people out of the way.
“Wait up, Toph! Don’t get separated.”
Despite his words, the older boy realized that he also had a genuine grin on his face. Right then, Zuko felt something he hadn’t known for a long time: fun. He didn’t remember the last time he’d had this much fun. The time he, Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai had crashed that party in Ember Island? That was nothing compared to this. Today, he realized that he truly had fun like a teenager his age should – worry-free and in the moment. It nearly reminded him of that time when he dated that Earth Kingdom girl in Ba Sing Se. Toph looked like she was enjoying herself, too. She all but squealed in delight when she finally stepped foot in that weapons store. It was one of the many acts of defiance against her parents, and she wanted to savor every moment. She picked up two metal balls the size of her fists that were connected to each other by a thin cord. Then she metalbended the balls to twirl dangerously in midair to which the shopkeeper showed his extreme discomfort. Sniggering to herself, she picked up other weapons and tried them all out. She took a special attachment to a pair of heavy gauntlets.
“I could work with these,” she said, and pounded her fists against each other.
Zuko chuckled despite himself. “Sorry Toph, but we don’t have money for a pair of gauntlets.”
“Awww,” she whined, but obediently put them down. “Hey Zuko, do you still have some money left over?”
“Great! Let’s go eat ice cream on a rooftop! I’ve always wanted to try it out.”
“Uhh… sure, I guess.”
To the weapons shopkeeper’s immense relief, Zuko and Toph left the store under her lead. She navigated Zuko through the complicated alleys with no trouble at all and brought him, as promised, to an ice cream vendor. It turned out that Zuko only had enough money for one, so he insisted Toph have the cone saying he wasn’t hungry. Then, Toph flung them both onto the top of the tallest building nearby.
“What an amazing view,” Zuko murmured, “I mean, you have a nice city. No, I mean, sorry. I know you can’t share this….”
“Stop being so sensitive to my blindness. I have no trouble seeing, you know. Well right now everything’s a blur since we’re not on the ground, but normally I’m fine. I don’t think I’m any lesser off than normal people.” Despite her words, Toph’s eyes became downcast. “But sometimes, I wonder what the world looks like to other people like you or Aang. I can see where things are, but I can’t see any colors or words or lights. So right now, I know that there are a lot of buildings and less people in the streets than during the day, but that’s it. I don’t see the lights they turn on in their homes or the color of the rooftop we’re sitting on.”
Zuko took a moment to take in Toph’s words. He had never thought of her blindness in detail before, but from the way she was describing it, it was as if she was seeing the world in black and grey. Being a firebender, light had always been a part of him. To think that that were to be taken from him; he shuddered to think about it.
“So what does light and color mean to you?” he asked. He couldn’t help himself, he was curious, but Toph did not seem the least bit offended. Gesturing for Zuko to come closer she said,
“Here, give me a little fire.”
Zuko created a little ember in his palm and held it with two hands just like the time he held the secret fire of the dragon. Toph’s hand came closer to the fire, reaching for it, and Zuko abruptly pulled back.
“Careful, you could burn yourself.”
Toph seemed somewhat annoyed at being reprimanded like a child.
“I know that,” she snapped, “I’ve burned myself enough times to know how close I can get without hurting myself.” True to her word, she stopped her hand within safety range and a smile shaped her mouth as the warmth of the fire tickled her.
“This is light for me. This warmth. I can’t see it, but I can definitely feel it. Color, though… color is meaningless for me. No matter how much I think about it, I just can’t understand what people mean by saying the grass is green or the sky is blue. Grass is grass, and the sky is the sky! I’ve asked my mother what color fire was, once. She told me that it was sometimes red, sometimes yellow, sometimes orange, and sometimes blue. How does that happen? Is color like bending? Can you change it?”
A crooked half-grin tugged at the corner of Zuko’s mouth as he listened in quiet disbelief to Toph’s words. Just as Toph couldn’t imagine her world in color, Zuko couldn’t imagine his without. He could do nothing about her blindness, but at least he could describe what she couldn’t see to her.
“Well, fire is normally red when it’s warm like this ember here. Red is really passionate, sometimes angry. You see red when you get angry. Blue fire is hotter, but the color is… blue has this cool feeling. It’s the color of the sky and the ocean. Azula’s fire is blue while mine is red.”
“So, your fire is passionate and angry, and your sister’s fire is hotter but… cool?”
“Yes! Wait, no, that’s not what I mean.”
“I don’t get it.”
“How about white, then? White is pretty easy to picture. Fire is really hot when it’s white, and white is like the beginning of something, like an empty canvas! So you don’t really see the color white.”
“Kind of like what I’m seeing?”
“Uh, no. You’re probably seeing black. Just think the opposite of that.”
“What does that mean?”
Zuko shrugged in defeat. This was more difficult than he thought. A little bit of guilt poked at him and he glanced over at his friend apologetically, but was relieved to see that Toph was still grinning and having a good time.
“This is great! I still don’t understand what you mean by red being passionate or ‘not seeing white’ and all, but it’s fun to see you try to make me understand,” she laughed. Zuko chuckled with her; he admitted that it was fun to try. The sun was setting, and they were directly facing it. Zuko marked that the sunset had a very beautiful orange glow.
“The sun is setting, and it’s orange,” he told Toph.
“Sunset? What time do you think it is? Should we get going now?” she asked.
Zuko made a face for he had hoped Toph would not bring up that subject. The fun was gone now, and his worries had come back.
“Yeah… I think we can go now.”
Toph created a slide to put them safely back on the ground and gladly led the way back to The Jade Dragon. Once they turned the corner to the tea shop, she stopped and brightened up even more making her look more like the 12 year old girl she was.
“I feel two people inside! That must be Iroh, come on!”
She grabbed Zuko’s wrist and started pulling him along with that abnormal strength of hers. Panicking, Zuko wrenched his hand out, forcing Toph to take a step backwards.
“What’s your problem? If you don’t want me to hold your hand just say so,” she snapped.
“I’m sorry Toph, I can’t go in.”
“What? Why not?”
“I just can’t. I’m not ready.”
“Yes you are, you had two whole days.”
“I know, I thought I’d have gotten my senses together when the time came, but I couldn’t. Maybe this just isn’t the right moment.”
“This is stupid! When is the ‘right moment’ then?” Toph yelled.
“I don’t know, just not now. Sometime later, but not today. It doesn’t feel right. This is just so sudden, Toph!”
Toph grabbed a fistful of her hair and let out a frustrated cry.
“You know what, fine. Stay here. If you won’t come in, then I’m going to get your uncle to come out,” and she stormed into the shop.
Amazingly, Zuko didn’t mind. Maybe that’s what he had wanted deep in his mind all along: for Uncle to come to him. Toph’s words caused such relief in Zuko that he almost felt cowardly. He was the one who had wronged Uncle, but now he expected Uncle to come to him? As he had told Toph, it didn’t feel right to go to Uncle now, but it was even worse to expect him to make the first move. Remaining indecisive, Zuko sat down against the outer wall and concentrated all his attention to the conversation inside. He didn’t dare pull open the curtains to risk exposure like last time.
“Welcome back, young Miss. You’re quite early.” It was the shopkeeper.
“Is Iroh here?”
“Are you looking for me?”
Zuko’s breath hitched. He would never forget that deep, slightly nasal voice. That voice had sounded so annoying many times during his banishment – he hadn’t listened to Uncle much – but now it made Zuko smile sadly as he wallowed in warm memories of the time the two spent together. Will those times ever come back?
“Hey, old man! I’m so glad to see you. Remember me?” asked Toph.
“Well, look who this is. To what pleasure do I owe this surprise visit from an old friend?” greeted Iroh. He had twisted around in his seat to face Toph, and was garbed in not the blue elegant robe the shopkeeper described, but in plain green Earth Kingdom clothing. In his hand was a small, plain, porcelain cup – supposedly the rare minty tea the shopkeeper had mentioned earlier. Across from him sat the shopkeeper with a similar cup. The two seemed to have been having a delightful chat as he had a pleasant smile on his face.
“Come join us,” said Iroh indicating to the seat next to him, “Yaozu here brews the best tea in Gaoling.”
The shopkeeper, Yaozu, seemed to blush at Iroh’s compliment and got up to head to the kitchen, murmuring something about getting more tea.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” said Toph, “Look, I know this might sound weird, but I need you to come with me outside.”
“Why?” Iroh asked, “Even if the shop is small, it is quite cozy I should think. Although, it would be better to change the color of the walls – they don’t match the floor or the tables! Yaozu may be great at tea, but he should leave the design to people with better perspective.”
“No, it’s not the shop. It’s your nephew, Zuko.”
If Iroh was the least bit surprised, he did not show it; instead, his eyes mirrored an undeniable, innocent curiosity.
“Zuko? Why do you speak of him?” He talked slowly as if to choose his words carefully.
“We came all the way to Gaoling from the Fire Nation, and he won’t come inside to meet you even though he’s right outside! How stupid is that? So, I’m here to get you to come out with me and talk to him.”
A pause, and Iroh rubbed his chin.
“Why would I want to do that?” Once again, deliberate slowness. It was driving Zuko crazy. Sweat had started breaking out on his forehead in fierce anticipation of each of Uncle’s next words. Maybe he didn’t want to hear what Uncle has to say. Maybe Uncle was not ready to forgive him, if he ever would. It was like with Father all over again: Zuko disappoints Father and gets banished, and now the possibility of severing ties with Uncle might as well be another kind of banishment for Zuko.
“Because he wants to talk to you. He’s joined our team – he’s joined the Avatar! He’s changed for the better, so I think that’s a pretty darn good reason to forgive him for what he did in Ba Sing Se.”
With his hand still stroking his beard, Iroh looked deep into Toph’s eyes and did not answer for a full minute. He had that look he would give Zuko when his nephew did something out of course. It was neither criticizing nor encouraging, but meant that Iroh was deeply mulling over Zuko’s choices. There was a tenseness in the atmosphere that even Yaozu could feel. The clueless shopkeeper hid behind his tray and timidly looked back and forth between Toph and Iroh. The girl, amazingly, waited patiently with a blank expression – and it was not because she was blind. Outside, Zuko clutched his chest as the pounding of his heart became so severe that he was certain it could be heard over the deafening silence inside. Why won’t he answer? This was probably the most agonizing minute of his life. Nonetheless, his patience was rewarded when Iroh opened his mouth at last, but his reply was not what he, Toph, or Yaozu was expecting.
“I will not go outside to meet Zuko.”
What? Zuko felt like his whole world was crashing down on him. Uncle… didn’t want to see him. But then again, isn’t that what Zuko had anticipated?
Toph focused her senses on Iroh’s heartbeat and was dismayed to find that it was steady.
“You’re not lying….” she whispered.
“No,” Iroh replied, “I’m not.” It was final. He meant it.
Zuko had heard enough. He stumbled out of the alleyway and ran down the road. The confirmation was too much.
Uncle didn’t want to see him.
Wasn’t that expected?
Uncle didn’t forgive him.
But it still hurt….
He somehow managed to drag his feet on the rough pavement back to the hotel in his mindless state. Once in his room, Zuko collapsed onto his bed, face-down, not bothering to wash up, change, or turn off the lights. How had he got here? What did it matter? What was he expecting when he followed Toph to Gaoling? Hugs and kisses? Of course Uncle would not forgive his betrayal so soon. He betrayed Uncle Iroh. He knew Uncle thought of him as his own son, and so had high hopes for him, which would have hurt Uncle more. Zuko bit his bottom lip, daring the tears to show. He didn’t deserve to cry; if anything, Uncle was the one who did. He himself had no right to be angry or heartbroken at Uncle’s choice. Lying rigid on the bed with a myriad of thoughts clustered in his head, Zuko could only wait until Toph returned.
Toph’s mouth dropped open at Iroh’s cold words. She had expected the old man to be a very forgiving type, and his words were like a vicious slap in the face. No matter how bad Zuko’s past choices were, they weren’t so bad as to not deserve forgiveness were they? She threw her hands in the air in confused anger. Then, thrusting an accusing finger toward Iroh, she finally exploded.
“How could you say that? Zuko threw everything away just so he could help Aang learn firebending – and he was very successful might I tell you – and he even came with me all the way here because I practically begged him to! He didn’t want to come because he thought he wasn’t ready, but I reassured him by saying that you would forgive him. I was really confident that I was telling the truth then, but now I see I’ve been telling my friend lies! And I see that you’re an old man full of lies too!”
To Toph’s bewilderment, Iroh chuckled.
“Are you laughing?” Toph cried, “Your nephew is probably hurt right now, and you’re laughing?”
“Calm down, my friend. I did not say that I do not want to see Zuko,” Iroh said in a soft voice. Toph stopped her accusations at his curious words.
“What do you mean?” she asked with one eyebrow raised.
“Come sit and have some tea with me. I apologize for laughing, but I can see why you have taken a liking to my nephew so easily – you both have hasty personalities. I believe Zuko has run off because he misinterpreted my words as you have. So, I will need you to help him understand what I meant.”
Toph reluctantly obeyed Iroh’s invitation and plopped down on the chair offered by him. Yaozu, who had been hiding in the kitchen whilst Toph was yelling, took this as his cue to bring himself and the tea out to the table. Iroh thanked the shopkeeper and took a long sip from his cup, finishing his drink with a relaxing “ahhhh.” Waiting for him to start explaining, Toph impatiently drummed her fingers on the surface of the table with one hand resting under her chin.
“As I have said,” Iroh started, “I had no intention of going out to see Zuko when you asked me to. But that does not mean that I do not miss him intently.”
Toph detected genuine sadness in Iroh’s words just then.
“But then, why didn’t you go outside? He was right there waiting for you.”
Iroh smiled warmly at the innocent girl.
“You don’t know how much I wished to say ‘yes’ in that moment, but that is exactly the reason: he was waiting for me. Knowing Zuko, he does not wait for anyone if he really wants something, and instead will actively seek it out. If he did not enter the teashop with you, then that must mean that his heart is still undecided in what he really wanted to do. And as you have told me: Zuko felt that he was not ready. And I do not want to rush him if my nephew feels that way, for haste will not help him find his path, especially not now.”
Toph’s face scrunched up as she attempted to digest Iroh’s words.
“So, you’re saying you’re going to forgive Zuko when he feels like he’s ready to ask for forgiveness?”
“Forgiveness? I have already forgiven him long ago. I think you are misunderstanding something: I was never angry at Zuko. When he sided with Azula that day, he had made his choice. I had only hoped that that choice would not lead him astray from his path. But-” Iroh glanced at Toph, the Avatar’s friend. Several months ago, he would not have expected his nephew to even think of being near the Avatar except as captor and prisoner. “-seeing as how he is with you and the Avatar now, perhaps that choice was a necessary one for Zuko to find his true destiny. Not all the choices we make are good, but all of them lead us down our own unique road. And now that Zuko has found his, he will be able to find me when his heart is truly ready.”
Once Toph understood Iroh’s true intentions, she dropped her head apologetically.
“So you have never hated him? Even though he disappointed you like that?” she whispered.
“Dear child, I will never hate Zuko! Everybody makes mistakes once in a while. I’ve made my share of mistakes as well – some big ones I cannot not reverse. So what can we expect in children such as yourselves? You have a long way ahead of you and your mistakes are a part of helping you grow. As Zuko’s uncle, I have a duty to help him find his path, but all I can do for him is provide him with advice and wisdom that I have learned from my own experiences. Zuko’s life is his, so in the end, the choice is also his to heed my words or not, and which words to heed.”
Iroh studied Toph as the girl seemed to struggle with unknown, conflicting thoughts.
“I see that something else troubles you,” he said. It was not a question, but a statement. Toph chewed her lips and fiddled with her fingers.
“I- I ran away from my parents to help Aang learn earthbending. I don’t miss my old life, but I can’t help thinking about them now and then and that I might have hurt them. They must be so worried, and disappointed in me right now. I mean, it’s not like I want to go back, but all this time… seeing Zuko and you… it just got me thinking, you know? That what if… what if my own parents never forgive me? What do I do then?”
“Do you regret leaving your family to be with Aang?” Iroh asked.
“No! It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.”
“Then do you think what you did was right?”
Was it right? She had abandoned her family, her home, her status to be with strangers she had just met that day. Toph kept telling herself that it was because she was the only one who could properly teach Aang earthbending, but was that really why? Wasn’t it just to escape the confines of her strict parents? Truthfully, wasn’t she simply envious of Aang’s group traveling the world so freely?
“You do not have to answer this question out loud,” interrupted Iroh, “That question was for your thoughts only. But if you do not regret your choices, and you think that what you did was the right thing – the necessary thing – then I advise that you stick to it,” Iroh said with a smile. “But of course, I’m just an old man with a cup of tea. You’re the one with the decision.”
Iroh was giving her great advice as usual, but all it meant was that Toph was the one that had to decide what to do. Right now, she almost wished that someone else could make the choice for her. But she knew the old man was right. One day she would have to come back to Gaoling and have a good talk with her parents, just… not now.
“Thanks for the advice – and the tea,” she acknowledged Yaozu.
“No, thank you,” answered Iroh, “Your choices have given Zuko a chance to really look into his heart. Without them, he may have wandered even longer. More importantly, you have brought this old man the relief and happiness of hearing that his nephew is safe and in the right hands.”
Toph beamed at Iroh’s kind words.
“You can count on us to keep an eye on Zuko. If he doesn’t make up his mind about all this forgiving business, then I’ll bash some rocks on his head to knock some sense into him.” Toph banged her fist on the wall for emphasis which created a crack in the wall much to Yaozu’s disapproval. Iroh, meanwhile, burst into laughter at the tough remark.
“Well, be sure to be careful you don’t knock the sense out of him with those rocks!” he joked.
“Just one problem,” Toph added, “How will we find you? We were pretty lucky this time because Zuko actually paid attention to your favorite tea shops, but Yaozu here told us that you’re leaving Gaoling tonight. Where will you be going?”
“I will not be in one place, and I certainly won’t be drinking tea – unfortunately – so I cannot tell you my future whereabouts for certain. Hmm….”
Once again, Iroh habitually stroked his beard as he weighed his available options. Then it was like a light bulb lit up in his mind as the most marvelous idea occurred to him. It was sensible, practical, and even a little mysterious – Iroh liked that.
“Ah-ha! I know exactly how you will find me regardless of where I am!” he exclaimed. Unexpectedly, he reached down and took off one of his sandals and held it up for all to see. The stench that diffused in the air twisted both Toph and Yaozu’s lips in disgust.
“Woah! What is that? Did someone just take a dump in here?” Toph retched and pinched her nose, but it did little to keep the smell out.
“I could not have said it better myself,” agreed Yaozu, also with his nose blocked.
“Excuse me, this sandal has traveled long and far with me and so shares many memories,” Iroh defended, but he packed the sandal tightly in a white cloth anyway and handed it to Toph, who reluctantly took it with two fingers and held it as far away from her as possible.
“What do you want me to do with your old sandal?” asked Toph.
‘Give it to Zuko. He will know how to use it,’ was all Iroh told her. Toph shrugged and got up to leave the tea shop when Iroh called her one last time.
“May I ask you for one more favor, Toph?”
“No problem, what is it?”
“Please tell Zuko… that I am very proud of him.”
That was it. Those words pulled the plug on Toph’s stored up emotions and she ran back to Iroh to throw her arms around his wide belly. Iroh seemed surprised by the sudden hug, but soon returned the embrace.
“Thank you for all the good advice today,” she mumbled into his clothes, “It really helped.”
Iroh patted Toph’s back without a word. She was still twelve, and Iroh could only imagine the turmoil this little girl must go through from choosing the Avatar over her parents. What all children want, after all, is all the love they can get from their parents.
“We will meet again. Good luck,” he whispered.
Toph turned and left the tea shop without looking back, slightly embarrassed at her display of emotion. This trip was turning out to be too teary for her taste.
“Zuko, hey Zuko! I know you’re in here. Open up or
I’ll make you.”
Toph pounded on Zuko’s door loud enough to wake the entire floor up. Several people peeked out of their rooms to complain, but Toph told them all to shut up and ignored all the insults. Once she understood that Zuko had no intention of opening the door, she metalbended the lock, kicked the door open, and strolled in like it was the most natural way to enter a room. Zuko was sprawled on his bed, facedown, fully-clothed and looking like he had been that way since he arrived.
“Hey, wake up. I have a message and a package for you.” She tossed the bundle from Iroh which landed squarely on Zuko’s head.
“Ow! What’s your problem?” he yelled.
“You,” retorted Toph, “Stop being such a crybaby and listen to me. I have something to tell you about your uncle.”
“Don’t bother, I already heard everything.” Zuko collapsed back onto his bed and rolled away from Toph. Toph crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.
“Oh really? Did you hear the part about him deciding not to go out to see you?”
“Yeah, why do you think I came back?” Geez, she didn’t have to rub it in.
“And did you hear the part about him saying that he misses you and is waiting for you?”
Zuko’s eyes snapped open at this new piece of information. He twisted around half expecting to see Toph pointing and sniggering at him, but she looked dead serious.
“No… I didn’t,” he breathed hopefully.
Toph smiled smugly and sat down next to Zuko just as she had the night before, and told him about her entire conversation with Iroh – leaving out the part concerning her parents, of course. Zuko sat with his hands interlocked and pressed to his lips, listening intently to every word as if he was hanging onto them for dear life. A rainbow of emotions flittered across Zuko’s face like a motion picture, and for once he was glad that Toph was blind.
“So… he’s not mad at me?” he asked delicately, afraid that the truth would shatter at the softest voice.
“Weren’t you listening to a word I said? He’s already forgiven you in his heart, and it’s now up to you to go find him and make real amends,” said Toph.
Zuko couldn’t believe it. All this time, he had been afraid that he had disappointed Uncle beyond forgiveness, but now he was waiting for him with open arms. It was as if a key had finally met the lock that held Zuko’s fears and released them; and like Pandora’s Box, most of his fears escaped his mind, yet left a granule of genuine hope. He looked at Toph, his friend. Zuko’s road to healing might not have been found without her, and so he put an open palm vertically on top of his fist and bowed to her – regardless of whether she could see it or not. He owed her this much.
“Thank you so much for telling me this, Toph. You don’t know how much it means to me,” he said. Toph stretched her arms above her head and pretended to look bored.
“Well, all in a day’s work for Toph Beifong: the best earthbender there ever was, and best friend you could ever have!”
Zuko had no arguments to that. Toph had indeed turned out to be one of his greatest friends, and he felt that this trip had strengthened their relationship even more. As he shifted his position on the bed, his hand brushed against the bundle that Toph had thrown at him.
“What’s in the bundle?” he asked.
Strangely, Toph’s happy expression immediately turned to one of – was that disgust?
“Oh, uh… yeah… you wait until I go over there-” she pointed to the other side of the room, “-before you open that.”
“Why? Is it something dangerous?”
“You could say that.”
Toph was acting weird, but the bundle was from Uncle; it couldn’t possibly be anything harmful, could it? Believing that, Zuko carefully undid the knot and gagged as he found what was inside. Now he knew why Toph was so wary of the package.
“Ugh, what is this? What does he expect me to do with his old sandal?” he asked confusedly.
“Beats me, he just said to find him with that,” Toph said, equally dumbfounded.
“Find him? Does he expect me to drop the sandal on the ground and see where it’s pointing?”
“Hey, I’m not the one who came up with the idea. Just keep it for now and think about it later.”
Zuko rolled his eyes, but wrapped the sandal in the white cloth once more. He didn’t dare voice the fact that he was, in truth, a little glad that he had something of Uncle close to him – even if it was a smelly old shoe.
The next morning, Zuko and Toph were well-slept for
the long-awaited trip back to Aang and the others. Toph seemed a little
disappointed that they were leaving the fun behind, but they both agreed that
they missed the gang and were ready to go back.
“Did you pack everything, Toph?” Zuko asked.
She patted her small bag and started walking toward the city gates. Zuko smiled and looked up at the sky. It was a beautiful day, and the cloudless skies seemed to match his mood which had improved greatly overnight. Toph also had a permanent smile and a gaiety in her stride that reflected her equally high spirit. Nothing could ruin her mood today. Nothing.
Toph halted dead in her tracks as the two familiar voices called out to her, but didn’t turn around. Zuko, on the other hand, thought it strange to hear someone recognize the girl, and so he warily looked behind him to find a man and a woman sprinting toward them.
“Toph!” they called again, “My daughter, is that you?”
Zuko’s eyes widened in realization: Toph’s parents! They had run into Toph’s parents! Zuko looked to Toph expecting to see joy, or even tears, but what he found there was the opposite. Toph had her fists clenched, eyes enlarged and unfocused, lips tight. Zuko had seen enough fear on people’s faces to know that Toph was afraid. The woman – Toph’s mother – went straight for her daughter with her arms outstretched. She was tearing up and seemed genuinely relieved to have found Toph.
“Toph, honey. It’s your mother. I am so glad we found you!”
At her mother’s voice, Toph finally came to her senses and stammered,
“Yes, sweetie, it’s me! Yuan the innkeeper told us that someone by the name Beifong was staying at his inn. Your father and I was sure that it was you. You must have been so scared all alone, away from us and your home.”
She embraced Toph in a tight, motherly hug which Toph neither rejected nor returned. To Zuko’s suspicion, her mother even seemed to shield her from him. To make matters even more hostile, Toph’s father appeared right beside his wife and blocked his family completely from Zuko.
“Young man, I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you leave while I allow you to,” he warned.
Zuko was not amused and stayed right where he was with his arms crossed.
“I’m with her,” he stated. To his immense surprise, Toph’s father shoved him hard, almost making the firebender lose his footing.
“I will not have a stranger in my daughter’s midst! The last time I allowed someone to approach my Toph, he kidnapped her from right under our nose. And now that she’s finally back safe and sound, I will not risk losing her again.”
Kidnapped? Zuko had no idea what this man was talking about, but his attitude enraged him. He took a fighting stance – though not having any real intention to harm him – and stood his ground. If Toph’s father was frightened, he did not show it; instead, he also put two fists up in an amateur fighting pose. It was clear that this man had not done any real fighting in his life.
“I will have you arrested if you come near my daughter again,” he threatened.
“Father, no! What are you doing?”
Toph had squirmed out of her mother’s arms and had come between Zuko and her father. Her mother seemed to want to pull Toph away from there, but hesitated when she saw Zuko’s fiery eyes.
“Toph, get behind your mother. Now,” her father ordered. “I will make sure this man pay for his crimes justly.”
“No, what are you talking about? Zuko is my friend. And what did you mean by kidnapping? Nobody kidnapped me, I left on my own,” Toph explained.
“Honey, what are you talking about?” her mother asked in a shaky voice.
“Mother, I left because I needed to teach Aang – the Avatar – earthbending. And I knew I was the only one who could because I’m pretty good at it. You and Father have seen me in the stadium that night, remember? Aang’s learned so much thanks to me. And I’ve made some really good friends on the way, too. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Zuko here… they’re only a part of the great people I’ve met on my journeys. I’ve learned a lot, too! I invented metalbending now. Isn’t that great? It’s helped a lot during the times I fought a whole bunch of firebenders. Oh, and I was even part of this invasion of the Fire Nation during the eclipse – that didn’t turn out well, but it was still something.” Toph had a hopeful sparkle in her eyes as she recounted her adventures to her parents who both looked more and more horrified as the stories progressed. Unfortunately, her father wouldn’t have any of this and interrupted her.
“Young lady, get back here right now. The Avatar and his friends have been a bad influence on you. Look at you! Your clothes are filthy and your hair is a tangled mess – how unfitting for a lady of your status! I had you learn earthbending despite your mother’s protests so you could at least try to defend yourself when we cannot, not so you could go picking rock fights like some uneducated street boy. I could see now that I was wrong. No more earthbending lessons for you when we get back. Instead, we will have to reeducate you in ladylike manners.”
“Your father is right. You may think that your friends and your wild life now is the best, but it’s just a passing phase. What about your family? You will have to come back home some day and marry and have children, don’t you?” her mother said. “Don’t you miss us, Toph?”
“I do… As much as I hate to admit it, I did miss you. And I’m sorry for hurting you like that, but I’m happy right now. I finally feel like myself after 12 years. Aren’t you proud of me, Mother? Father? Your daughter is a really good earthbender – the Avatar’s teacher! She’s fighting the Hundred Year War with him!”
“Toph, that war is not for you to fight. Leave it to the Avatar and the other trained soldiers. Your life is here in Gaoling. No matter how many times you tell yourself, your blindness will always be a handicap. I’m sorry, but that’s the hard truth, honey. So please come back home where you will be safe. I can’t stand to continue worrying about you like this,” her mother implored.
Toph was speechless. Weren’t they at least the tiniest bit impressed by her achievements? She was the greatest earthbender alive, but all they could think of was how unladylike or handicapped she was? Hollow disappointment pushed down on her like the sinking library in the desert.
Zuko now understood why Toph left and was even more loath to return. She and her parents had polar opposite expectations of what was best for her, and it seemed nearly impossible to come to an agreement. He went up next to Toph and tried to vouch for her.
“Look, Mr. and Mrs. Beifong, I know we got off to a rough start, but I just wanted to say that your daughter is the most amazing person I’ve ever seen. Her earthbending skills are extraordinary, not to mention her metalbending skills, but she is a true friend and companion. She tried to help me come to terms with my uncle, which is why we were in Gaoling in the first place. I couldn’t have felt at peace without her. She has also been a huge help to the Avatar, and has become a necessary part of the team. Please, can you just reconsider her success and grant her journey your blessings?”
“Don’t interfere in our family business, boy,” Toph’s father answered without a moment’s hesitation, “Do you think this is not a severe matter? It’s not something we can just ‘bless.’ We have done everything in our power to do what’s best for Toph, and now you and the Avatar have gone and ruined 12 years of our efforts. Her mother was bedridden for a week after we found out Toph had gone missing. Imagine, our blind little girl out in the wild with only hooligans like you for protection. I will not have it!”
“And look at all those scars!” the mother cried, “My little Toph’s soft, white skin is marred by cuts and bruises!” And she shed tears into her silky sleeves.
Zuko was becoming as frustrated as Toph with her parents.
“Please, stop looking only at one side of the matter. Toph has never needed our protection before. She can take care of herself!” he pleaded.
But Toph’s father ignored him and marched up to his daughter to drag her home. In his annoyance, Zuko burst out a wall of fire, effectively separating them and the parents. Toph’s father quickly retracted his hand and glared at Zuko with fearful accusation.
“How dare you, a firebender! I should have you arrested. Leave now before I call the authorities,” he spat.
“STOP IT! STOP IT NOW!” Toph hollered. She stamped her feet wide apart and made a motion of lifting something very heavy. The ground below her and Zuko rose to form a square platform high enough so her parents couldn’t reach her. Toph’s eyes were teary and her voice shook plainly when she spoke.
“I thought you would understand. I thought you would see me for who I was when I proved myself,” she choked.
“Toph. Toph, please get down here,” her mother begged. Both mother and daughter were weeping.
“No. I’m not coming back until you can accept me for who I am.”
“Toph please, we only wanted what’s best for you. We’re not trying to harm you, we love you!”
“…I love you too.”
And she was off. The platform lurched and rolled through the buildings, carrying Zuko and Toph quickly to the gates. The desperate calls of Toph’s parents grew faint and Zuko felt uncomfortable for leaving them behind like that. Toph, on the other hand, seemed entirely focused on bending them out of the town. She didn’t stop for a word until they reached Appa, and even then the only thing she said was a curt “Yip yip.” Zuko was forced to travel in silence until Gaoling and the mountains enveloping it could no longer be seen. Only then did Toph attempt to break the heavy atmosphere.
“What a trip,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I wonder what’s for dinner?
“I don’t want any of those Water Tribe dishes. They taste all gooey and melt in my mouth.”
“Hey listen, I-“
“Stop, Zuko. Please… don’t mention what happened back there,” she interrupted. She was resting her arms on the edge of the saddle and staring out into the clear sky, away from Zuko. Zuko could see that she needed time to organize her thoughts just as he did. Through this trip, he realized that they both had more in common than he thought. Maybe that was why the girl kept sticking to him ever since he joined the team. Zuko smiled sadly as he now understood a portion of Toph’s mentality.
“I was just going to say that I meant every word of what I said back there. You’re a really great earthbender, but better yet, you’re an incredible friend,” he said. He didn’t turn around to see Toph blush at the confession.
“Shut up.” She paused, then added, “So are you going to go find your Uncle someday? I mean, that was the whole point of this trip remember?”
Zuko’s thoughts wandered back to the conversation in the hotel room. Toph’s words had been greatly encouraging, but he wasn’t sure how much of it to believe. But then again Uncle had given him the shoe…. He still could not comprehend what he expected him to do with it, but it had to mean something.
“Maybe,” was all Zuko could reply at the moment. Toph scoffed and lay down.
“What a bore,” she muttered.
Zuko wisely chose to ignore the comment. The silence ensued for a few more minutes before Toph attempted conversation once more.
“I don’t regret this trip,” she declared.
“Me neither,” agreed Zuko, “It was nice. Really nice.” And a nice change from the constant stress of the war.
Toph eventually fell asleep with a tranquil smile, and the rest of the flight was made in companionate peace.
When the exhausted Appa finally landed on the
shores of Ember Island at sundown, Aang, Sokka, Suki, and Katara all came
dashing out of the house.
“Where were you guys? We were worried sick when you disappeared with Appa! We thought something had happened!” scolded Katara.
“You’d better have a good explanation young sir and miss, or someone’s going to be in big trouble!” added Sokka.
Aang stood silent until Zuko and Toph safely set foot on the ground. He was no longer surprised at people going missing with Zuko and Appa and had simply concluded that it was Toph’s turn this time. Although, it was getting a little annoying how people were using Appa like a free airship.
“So, Toph, how was your little fieldtrip with Zuko? It took longer than most of ours,” Aang asked curiously.
Zuko looked to Toph for answers because he had no idea how to answer the innocent question. Toph looked straight ahead and didn’t answer for a while. Then, she yawned loudly and casually sauntered through the crowd to the house.
“Oh, it was pretty cool. We went to this fair and ate ice cream on a rooftop. Other than that, nothing interesting happened, right Zuko?”
Zuko jumped and stammered as he followed Toph’s lead.
“O-oh right. Yeah. It was cool.”
Never having been a good liar, he quickly tried to hide his guilt by running after Toph, furiously avoiding the suspicious looks of the others.
“Right….” Aang murmured, “You took Appa to go to a fair and eat ice cream on a rooftop. That’s cool.”
Toph sniggered at Aang’s skepticism. “Anyway, Katara, what’s for dinner? I’m starving!” she called behind her.
“Delicious seaweed noodles! Sokka found some at the market, and it’s almost like the ones we have back home.”
Toph gagged and grumbled low enough so only Zuko could hear.
“I miss the egg tarts already.”