They're sitting at the table in the far corner of the Jasmine Dragon, drinking tea on their break when Sokka says: "No, no no no no no no. That's cheating."
"Why?" asks Toph.
"Because I can't help you with something I dared you to do. It's not...dare protocol!"
"You didn't say I couldn't do it—just that I was too scared. I could get Aang to help me, but he's no fun; he wouldn't whine like you." Toph sips her tea. "Or I could ask Katara, but I don't think she'd approve. And besides—" She smiles. "None of 'em have your talent."
"What won't I approve of?" Katara asks, coming up behind Sokka.
"Never mind," says Katara. "I don't want to know."
He's next to Father, finally, though on his left: a disappointment still. (She knows she would be there, too, had things...gone differently, but her lips quirk, always). There's fire in his hands but none in his eyes; he is a doll amid dragons. Yet dragons are exactly what arch above him, two of them, twined together like the strands of a girl's braid.
(Why dragons? There haven't been any since Uncle did the only decent thing he'd ever done in his life and slew the last of them.)
He is boyish...no, effeminate. Small and weak in this hall of men. There is no power in his jaw, no scar over his left eye. Whenever he sees it, he walks quickly past. But she is better than Zuko, and so she looks.
"Apex," her voices whisper. "You apex."
Footsteps. Footsteps behind her. Staring into his vapid face to distract herself from the spiderflies crawling between her shoulders, she stiffens a little but she doesn't turn. Father would nod and smile with the corner of his mouth, if he were here.
"Princess," says the servant who isn't one, "are you ready for your treatment?"
"No. What's my brother doing? Decreeing that everyone in the world should have a kitten?"
"He's in a meeting. But it should be over soon. He'll have time for you then."
"I'm not a child," she says.
"Come. It's time for your treatment."
Iroh can't remember the last time he was surprised. His brother challenging a boy—his own son—to an Agni Kai had made him sick, but it didn't shock him. (Which made his complicity in it all the more horrible). Zuko choosing Azula over his honor in the catacombs was understandable, if shameful. He hadn't even been surprised when his son fell in battle: just heartbroken. Lu Ten loved his country more than himself and put all his effort into everything he did. He was like his nephew that way. And maybe Azula, too.
Leave it to Toph to stymie him completely.
"Would she...know what this is?" He doesn't even know what this thing is supposed to be.
"She will. Unless Sokka painted it wrong." Toph grins then, like some of the mischievious beings he saw in the Spirit World. "And here's the note."
Iroh isn't one for civilian spying, which is why he's closed the Jasmine Dragon for the New Year and is halfway across the ocean before he reads the note, just to see if it clarifies things.
When he folds it back up again, he almost understands it and yet is more confused than ever.
"Please tell me you're not doing what it looks like you're doing."
"Father always put paintings up for the New Year." Zuko continues to paint, not looking up.
"Yes, but he didn't actually paint them. What do you think the royal artist is for? You've been spending far too much time with peasants."
"You make your own lantern."
"I have skill. You have..." She raises an eyebrow. "What are those? Earthworms?"
"Butterfly-cicadas," he mutters.
"Really, Zuzu." She makes no attempt to hide the smirk, unlike most of the things she'd like to do anymore. "Whatever made you think you're an artist?"
He still doesn't look up. "A friend of mine."
"Let me guess. The blind one."
"No," he says, but he stops painting, and that's good. Then: "Uncle should be here soon."
"Good. You'll have another traitor to talk to, then."
The shadow over his face is like the first bolt of lightning she ever pulled from the sky. Uncle was always the one Zuko ran to crying, even before Mother left. Of course it still works with him.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" he says. "I'm busy here."
Busy. He consorts with enemies of the state; undoes his own country's military operations; serves tea in Ba Sing Se like a commoner. He's painting a picture. How dare he act like he does anything important. Like he's Father.
"I love Zuko more than I fear you," Mai says, as she does.
In the corner of his little boy's painting, the earthworm-things coagulate into a shadow. Two of them look like thin loops of hair.
The general says "Firelord," and bows.
"Uncle!" says the Firelord, throwing his arms wide.
She bows, small and perfect, making sure to smile a little. They worry about what she's thinking when she smiles.
"Dinner should be ready soon," says Zuko. "Are you hungry?"
Iroh laughs. "Are you joking?"
She yawns, primly.
In the dining room, she sits near the end of the table, cattycorner, so she can see the door. Doors are like the sun—a sun that can burn you if you're not looking—and she hates them. She hates them the same way she hates Zuko now.
He doesn't sit at the head of the table; he never does. He sits next to her instead (hates him hates him hates him), but leaves a chair. She won't think about whose it is. Then Uncle sits across from her directly, and she hates him even more—and then hates that. She splays her fingers and looks at them (to keep his eyes from boring into her skull) and says, "I don't care for proverbs and pointless stories, Uncle."
"You never have," he says.
"Well.." She looks harder at the back of her hand. "You're not a complete fool after all."
Soon there are fish and soup and a plate of prawns, and she eats delicately as their empty words fly:
"...quite the Pai Sho player"
"took all the chairs and..."
"Sokka ate the whole thing. He hasn't been the same since."
"...and then Appa..."
"...should've seen his face when she..." Zuko looks at her then, sideways, and takes a bite of his fish.
She has the beginnings of a headache when Uncle says something about presents. "They were busy invading the country on your birthday, after all." One of the servants brings in a huge basket of peaches. Just in case the contents weren't obvious (her brother's friends must be pretty stupid, but then, so is he), the word "Peach" is written on it. Zuko smiles as if he knows a secret. "Tell Peach I said thank you." Uncle does the secret-smile then.
"I'm tired," she says and goes to her room, hoping it's not too late.
"Zuko doesn't mean it," Mother says. "He just hasn't seen your uncle in a while."
"He sees Uncle all the time. Or them. Why doesn't it work, Mother? Why won't it work?"
"It works just like it always has, darling. You're just on the wrong side of it."
She's sitting on the edge of the bed—facing the door, of course—rocking just a little as the lightning still trips up and down her body when there's a knock. Uncle says: "May I come in?" She doesn't feel like answering, so he does. He stands next to her, takes a long drink of tea. Then he says: "I'm sorry."
"You should be."
"Yes. It was lazy of me, getting you a doll."
He says nothing for a long time—just drinks as her brain winds down. Then: "Would you like your gift? I can't vouch for it, considering."
"I don't need your charity, Uncle."
"It isn't mine. Come."
Zuko's watching when Uncle says: "From the blind one"—
("Uncle!" says Zuko.)
—and hands her a note and the ugliest clay figure she's ever seen. It is a purple platypus-bear with pink horns and silver wings.
From Toph and Sokka, the note reads, but really just Toph, because the assistant doesn't count.
I knew you weren't 400 feet tall.
Zuko looks at Uncle the way he'd look at her whenever Uncle would spout nonsense. Then he asks, "Did Toph get me anything?"
"Oh, yes." Uncle takes a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolds it, clears his throat. "IOU: one life-changing field trip, payable to Toph Bei Fong."
This time, behind her firebending fingers, she hides the smirk.