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"...and then they all settled into their nests and went to sleep." Zuko let out a long sigh, reaching up to rub at his eyes. "Isn't that what you should be doing, Mei Lien?"
Princess Mei Lien tipped her head back to look at her father, though as she went too far, she flailed a little and fell onto her back with her legs sticking in the air. "Again! Please, Daddy? Pleasepleaseplease?"
From where she watched by the door, Katara could see Zuko's expression melt into a smile, and she glowed with pride. At least now Zuko was taking her advice to stay in bed seriously. It probably also helped that she had recruited Mei Lien. Currently the Princess sat half on his chest as he leaned back in the pillows. Even though he was quickly looking exhausted, he was looking much better. Truthfully, under other circumstances, he probably would have enjoyed the respite from court politics and intrigue. And Katara also had to admit there was something very satisfying about watching him and Mei Lien. His love for her was obvious and overwhelming, as if he was trying to make up for his father's cruelty, his mother's insanity, and even Mai's death in sheer devotion. It was a sad rarity to see a royal child so deeply and simply loved.
Zuko scooped Mei Lien into his arms a little closer before settling back on the pile of pillows once more and repositioning the book he held. Mei Lien tucked her head underneath his chin, smiling as he flipped back to the first page and started to read. "In the very big city of Ba Sing Se, there was a little park, and in this little park was a little pond, and in this little pond lived a little turtle-duck..."
Katara smiled as she finally pulled away from the doorframe and stretched, rolling her shoulders. It had been a long, hard day, though not as bad as yesterday. Zuko had remained thankfully unconscious after collapsing while tryng to firebend, and even more thankfully the Princess accepted explanations that Zuko needed to rest. But with the sunrise came Katara giving Zuko her most vicious scolding, one that completely ignored him agreeing to rest right until he stridently insisted the fifth time with her. Maybe now Katara could get some proper rest. Toph had come in mere hours ago, so it wasn't as if she was alone in trying to figure this out and defend Zuko, either...
She had been drifting off into her own thoughts when she was snapped back into the present by a light punch in the arm. Immediately Katara turned, laughing. "Toph! There you are!" Toph grinned back, and the two leaned in to hug each other. "Where've you been?"
"Having a cup of tea with General Iroh. Well, a cup or seven," she said with a grin.
"I think he's just Iroh now," Katara said, starting to walk alongside Toph down the wide corridor. "Though... you know, I'm not really sure. I'm surprised that you were able to get him to stop dealing with administrative business, since he's stepping in for a lot of Zuko's duties right now..."
"Katara, we're talking about the same Iroh here, right?" Toph grinned crookedly. "There's always time for tea and a game of pai sho."
This made Katara laugh again, and she shook her head. "Okay, okay, forget I said that. You know, it's been a couple of years since I even played a game of pai sho..."
Toph's grin grew momentarily toothy and almost vicious. "I'll play you before we head to bed. Fifty silver to the winner!"
"I'm not THAT stupid, Toph!" Katara lightly punched Toph in the arm, laughing.
"Aw, come on! Pai sho's so much better when something's running on it!"
Katara rolled her eyes. "Okay. Five copper."
She expected more of an argument, but Toph just grinned and nodded. "It's a deal!"
Katara laughed. "Don't tell me you even gamble on your games of pai sho with Iroh..." Toph grimaced slightly. "So how much does he owe you now?"
Toph put her hand to her mouth as if about to cough and mumbled something into her fingers.
"What was that?"
"...I said I... kinda sorta owe him five gold pieces."
Katara laughed so hard that as they walked past the garden courtyard, the turtle-ducks quacked at her in aggravation for making so much noise. It was another pleasant night, the air heavily perfumed with jasmine, and Katara was glad that things were finally relaxed enough she could enjoy it. In the dimming light of sunset, the fireflies gently glowed, and the colorful lanterns illuminating the garden had already been lit.
"Seriously though, Toph, thank you for coming. We still have no idea who is even behind this, or -"
Toph waved a hand. "You wouldn't have been able to keep me away even if you wanted to. I needed some actual proper tea." Katara blinked. "I'm in the Jade Dragon every single day. General Iroh is the only one who knows how to make a proper cup of the stuff," she said, sounding downright fierce in her devotion.
"Wow, I didn't know you were so... passionate about tea."
"I became passionate about it about the same time I opened that metal-bending school," Toph grumbled. "Some of the rejects who show up expecting to be handed everything, like it's not any actual work!" She threw up her hands in disgust. "And you wouldn't believe all the people who come to the gates all, ooh, I can't really earthbend, but I should be able to metalbend -" Toph gave a long disgusted sigh. "It's ridiculous!"
"Okay, now I'm seeing the need for tea," Katara agreed.
"At least this is going to be a nice vacation." Toph shrugged as if shaking the weight of the stress off her shoulders. "Gotta admit, for a king and everything, Sparky knows how to live. Great cooks, too."
Katara bit the inside of her cheek a moment before guiltily admitting: "it is a nice getaway... I mean, besides the whole obvious bit where one of our friends was nearly killed and we still don't know who is even wanting him dead when his death could mean the entire world plunged back into war..."
Toph gave a 'pfft'. "It's probably just one random maniac. If there were some group in Ba Sing Se or even the Earth Kingdom up to something, I'm pretty sure I would have heard at least a hint of it now. So that rules out the Earth Kingdom... I'm guessing that you haven't heard of any crazy movement coming from either of the Water Tribes... and I'm also pretty sure that it wasn't Aang who snuck in here and tried to poison Zuko... so there you go." She shrugged.
"Yeah, but the assassin was also an earthbender..."
"I never said that the Earth Kingdom couldn't contribute the lone crazy, I'm just saying he's a lone crazy." Toph shrugged. "So, about that game of pai sho...?"
Katara looked to the side, back out at the wide garden. She could already imagine how by now Mei Lien was probably asleep, her arms still loosely hugging Zuko's neck as she snuggled up to him, having dozed off mid-book-reading. And she could imagine how Zuko would wave away the servants ready to take the Princess to her own bedroom. She would probably find them in the morning still dozing, father and daughter taking refuge in each other. And perhaps she could let Zuko's own body take over for a few days, and she would spend a lazy day recovering from the exertion of such intensive healing work. Maybe even go to a spa with Toph, just like they did in Ba Sing Se...
She took in a deep breath, letting the scent of the jasmine seem to soak her very soul. Maybe, just maybe, things would be all right.
"Sure, Toph. I think that tonight's such a good night I'll even up my wager to two silver..."
For the collective works of the author, go here.
The title is a reference to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.