Toph is seventeen and has decided that maybe she's getting around a bit too much. It's not like it's her fault, not really. She just likes people too much. Not just regular likes, because people are morons, but she does like them. She likes their gravelly voices, smooth hands, and slick mouths. She prefers men, but women can be fun too, so why not?
People disapprove, and not just her stick-in-the-mud parents, but everyone. Most of her friends don't know, but Sokka does and whenever she runs into him he always gives her these weird looks, mostly because he thinks she can't tell. She hasn't seen Zuko lately as he's off saving the world one boring meeting with world leaders at a time, so she doubts he has any clue unless she's become more a legend than she ever thought she would. Katara doesn't know (thank the spirits because while Toph may do crazy shit, it doesn't mean she wants to DIE) and while Aang has done some growing up in the last few years, he's still a bit too naïve to notice, even though he and Katara have been fucking married since he was sixteen. What a waste, Toph thinks, but it's their lives and now she can make officially make perverted jokes. She knows for a fact that they did this whole waiting until after marriage thing that apparently is supposed to be a big deal.
Toph has a private theory that seeing people are a lot more uptight and picky because they can see how gross a potential one night stand is. If most people were blind, they'd have a much easier time of everything. Well, except writing, but who needs that?
She doesn't really know what to call herself. She's loathe to use the word slut, and whore is a bit too much like prostitute and she really isn't one of those either. Toph finally decides on the word 'easy' because of the way it slides off the tongue and she thinks it's kinda sexy. One Sugarqueen probably wouldn't think so, and no offense to Aang, but her taste in men sucks.
She's mostly been traveling by herself, perfecting her Earthbending techniques. She was in Ba Sing Se visiting Iroh before and her parents place before that, but her parents are the most boring people in the world and she hates Ba Sing Se. Aang and Katara are busy being married and disgustingly in love, Sokka's been traveling between the North and South Poles to keep himself busy after the whole thing with Suki went bad, Zuko's been trying to kill himself slowly with paperwork ever since the whole thing with Mai went bad, and as a result Toph doesn't really want to be around any of them.
She's a little lonely sometimes, at night, when she remembers all of them curled around a campfire. Sometimes she wishes the war was still going on because it would give her something to do. But the fighting part of the war is over and the reconstruction has begun. And Toph knows that the only two things she's really ever good at are fighting and fucking, so she takes a step back, and then another, and it seems likes she's never stopped.
One of the only good things about being a Bei Fong is that Toph never has to worry about money. So she goes where she likes and when she likes.
And that's basically been her life ever since the war ended. Well, not the promiscuous sex part. She was at least fourteen before that started. But things are pretty okay. After all, it's not like that crazy bastard Ozai won. Things are getting better, albeit a bit more slowly than they expected them to.
But there is only so long that this can go on and in the late spring of her seventeenth year, everything changes.
She's in the Fire Nation, sort of close to the capital, when she hears about some dragon festival that is apparently a pretty big deal. It sounds like fun, even though Toph thinks the people of the Fire Nation are a bit too obsessed with dragons. So, she decides to go to the capital and drag Zuko out to have some fun, because if all the things she's heard he's done in the past month or so are true, she doubts he's had any recently. When she gets closer to the capital city she learns the festival's real name (Duanwu) and a few of the traditions that surround it. People hang up scrolls outside their houses (though of what Toph does not know) as well as strings of herbs, and men construct large boats shaped like dragons. Zongzi are also made in abundance, but they taste odd and are shaped differently than the ones she is used to. They are longer and are only made with red bean paste, which seems kind of boring. The Fire Nation is so weird.
Toph debates whether to wear her regular clothes or not, but eventually decides against it. There's more of a chance she'll be able to get into the palace without being stopped if she's dressed nicely and Zuko's reaction will be funny. She goes to a high class boutique to pick out a dress. At first the staff is not at all pleased with her less than pristine appearance, but then she accidentally mentions her last name and then they're falling all over each other to help her.
One of these days Toph is going to find out exactly why her family is so rich and famous, so well-known even in the Fire Nation.
In the end Toph picks out a dress that is much like the one she used to wear at home, mostly because she is used to moving in it. Not that she expects to be attacked, but if she has to dress up, she wants to be as comfortable as possible. She is told the specific shades of red of the dress by an overly sympathetic saleswomen and slides her fingers idly over the lotus-patterned bodice. Toph finds the choice of flower particularly amusing, though maybe lotuses symbolize something different in the Fire Nation. The shop assistants refer her to a place where she can get her makeup done and find some hair ornaments, and she's on her way. They try to sell her some nice shoes too, but the gown is long enough to cover her feet, so Toph doesn't bother. It's night by the time she's totally ready, her outfit complete with two ornamented hair chopsticks ("Hair sticks," her mother would say reprovingly. "That is their proper name.") that the salesperson assured her matched her outfit. Her hair is longer now, long enough that she can stick it back in a proper bun. Toph initially grew it out just for kicks and to shock people when she would inevitably cut it razor short. But for some reason she still hasn't cut it yet.
Probably because there isn't anyone around to notice.
To her annoyance there seems to be a party going on at the palace in honor of the festival, and by party she means Zuko has invited a bunch of Fire Nation nobles to try and ease them into not hating his guts so much and maybe stop trying to block his every move to ensure world peace. A party also means there's extra security and her "I lost my invitation and by the way, I'm a Bei Fong" act just doesn't cut it.
"I was invited," she says in her snootiest voice, but the guards don't budge.
"I'm sorry, miss," one says. "But we're not permitted to let people in without an invitation or appointment. I'm sure you were invited, but we've had two incidents this month, so…"
"Incidents" immediately translates to "assassination attempts" and Toph is shocked. She knew things in the Fire Nation were unstable, but she didn't know it was this bad.
"I am hardly a suspicious character," she says, biting back most of the frustration in her voice. "I am a Bei Fong and I demand entrance to this party. You are making me later than I already am."
"Look," the other guard says sounding annoyed. "You could be the Avatar himself and we still wouldn't let you in."
"We wouldn't?" the first guard says in confusion. "I thought that the Avatar was a close personal friend of th-"
The second guard elbows him in the ribs. "Shut up, I'm trying to make a point!"
With security like this, no wonder ol' Fire Princess is having trouble, Toph thinks, and rolls her eyes for good measure. Maybe if they keep arguing she can sneak pa-
Dammit, she thinks as they turn their attention back to her.
"Hey, wait a second," the first one says. "You said you were a Bei Fong. Do you mean Toph Bei Fong?"
"Er…" Toph says, a little shocked because she's pretty sure her first name is on her passport. "Yes…"
"The Toph Bei Fong?"
"Yes…" Oh, crap, she really is famous. If one of them tries to proposition her she's going to…
"The Avatar's Earthbending teacher?' the second guard asks, obviously very shocked.
Ha…ha…ha, she is famous for Earthbending, isn't she?
"She was part of the Avatar's group when he defeated Fire Lord Ozai," the first guard hisses.
"But she can't be more than eighteen! And she's blind."
"The Avatar was twelve when he beat-"
"Hey," she says, too irritated to be polite. "Are you going to let me in or what?"
They stand frozen for a second, gaping at her. Toph gives a loud groan of annoyance and shoves past them through the palace gates. They don't try to stop her, which Toph takes as a good sign and she manages to slide into the hall where the banquet is going on. Being in the Fire Nation palace always makes her feel awkward, because it's so big and polished and foreign. It doesn't help that she's wearing fancy clothes that took her ages to get into and for a second Toph wonders What the hell am I doing here? But she ignores the instinct to take yet another step back and finds herself a spot at the back where she can eat unnoticed. Zuko is sitting at the head table in the front with what are probably his advisers, but Toph doesn't try to signal him. She'll catch him after this whole stupid thing is over. Instead, she waits and observes, and the more she does this, the more she feels like something is wrong.
Zuko's advisers are all so young. Not as young as he is, but they're still several decades younger than advisors usually are. Probably because all the old people with enough the talent are either retired like Jeong Jeong and Piandao or supported (and probably still support) the war.
The noble's chatter quiets down as Zuko stands up to speak about unity and peace and all that other stuff and Toph leans forward, feet pressed hard against the ground, trying to figure out exactly what is going on.
And beyond the weird palace atmosphere, beyond the advisers, even beyond Toph's own misgivings, something is wrong with Zuko. She's too far away to feel anything definite, but his posture is…strange. Stiff and uncomfortable. If this was Zuko's first time public speaking maybe she wouldn't have been so weirded-out, but she saw him speak all those years ago when he declared the war over, and he wasn't anything like this. He had been relaxed and free. What is going on? Assassination attempts that she hadn't heard of and now this?
Her first instinct is to drag him out of the room and demand answers, but now is hardly the time, so she grits her teeth and waits.
She nearly falls asleep and almost misses the distant patter of Zuko leaving the room. He's trying to be sneaky, which would be funny in any other circumstance, but just ends up worrying her more. Edging through the crowd of socializing nobles in the middle of the room, she slips past them without garnering much attention. She breaks out into a run the second she steps into the hallway because Zuko's footsteps are receding and she does not want to lose him. She pauses in the middle of the long hallway and drops to one knee, putting her hand flat against the floor to feel better.
"Damn it, Zuko," she thinks. "What the hell is going on?"
She turns left and climbs up two flights of stairs, panting by the time she finally catches up with him.
"Hey!" she yells. "What the hell is your problem?"
He turns around abruptly, as if he didn't even hear her coming.
"Sorry?" he says, sounding a little confused. "Is there something I can help you with?"
Ugh, the cushy life has gotten to him. What happened to the hotheaded, arrogant little shit that he used to be?
"You're my problem," she says, jabbing her finger in his general direction. "You're being stupid. What the hell is going on?"
"Er…" Zuko says, and Toph realizes what should have been obvious all along. He doesn't recognize her. She isn't sure whether she wants to laugh or cry.
"You stupid-" she starts, furious. "Have you gone senile, fancy pants?"
She's close enough to him to actually feel his eyes widen.
"Toph?" he asks incredulously, sounding like a moron and therefore a bit more like himself.
"Obviously! Who the fuck else?"
"It's been a long night," he protests. "And you look…strange."
"Thanks, Zuko," she thinks sarcastically. "Just what a girl wants to hear."
Though she supposes with her hair long and bangs pulled completely back, she may look different. Besides they haven't met in what? 2-3 years? She's certainly done some growing up since then.
"Enough about me," she says, waving a dismissive hand at him. "What is wrong with you?"
"Huh? What are you talking about? I'm fine," he says, lying badly.
"I can tell when you're lying, you know," Toph says, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly. "Now out with it. You're all…stiff."
"Look," Zuko says exasperatedly. "It's been a long night, and I have tons of work to do tomorrow, so if you need a place to stay I can get the servants to make up a room fo…"
But Toph isn't really listening to what he's saying. All she can hear is the weakness in his voice and the tired way and holds himself. He isn't stiff or rigid now; he's limp, and in all the years she's known him he's never been like this before.
"What happened to you?" she cuts him off.
"What? What are you-"
"Are you sick?" she demands, putting her hand over his heart to feel his heartbeat better.
The gesture wouldn't have been much use if Zuko still wore the traditional Fire Lord armor. But he had stopped wearing it shortly after his coronation, claiming it was a remnant of a militaristic past that was better discarded.
After that, shoulder spikes became sort of a fad ranging from nobles all the way down to commoners.
"What? Toph…" Zuko says again, but she ignores him.
His heart seems fine, and she can't feel anything else physically wrong with him.
"What's wrong?" she asks stubbornly. "Is it those assassination attempts?"
Zuko's mouth drops open and he grabs her arm and pulls her to the side of the hallway even though there's no one there.
"Where did you hear that?" he hisses.
"Nowhere," she says defensively. "I mean, your guards said something about incidents, and I'm smart enough to know what that means…"
Zuko lets go of her arm and groans. "Shit," he says. "That wasn't supposed to get out."
Zuko shrugs his shoulders, another weak movement that doesn't suit him and Toph's mouth thins. "Just some pro-war terrorists," he says, like it's not a big deal. "I took care of them. They're not the problem anyway. It's the nobles and merchants who are funding them."
"How long has this been going on?" Toph asks, throat tight.
Zuko gives a humorless laugh. "Going on? Pretty much since I became Fire Lord."
"But," Toph protests. "That can't have…I would have heard about it!"
"I've been trying to keep it quiet. Things are bad enough already. If this gets out they'll be even more unrest." Zuko lets out a hollow chuckle. "Or maybe they'll unite and dethrone me once and for all."
Toph pauses for a second, taking this in.
"How bad?" she asks seriously.
"How bad, Zuko?"
Zuko lets out a deep breath and sags against the wall. He slides down it, causing her a flash of déjà vu back to that time all those years ago when they were just kids, fugitives in the Fire Nation, trying to save an uncomplicated world. Well, it had been complicated, but they just hadn't realized it.
"Bad," he says, leaning his head up against the wall and closing his eyes. "Did you know world peace is a radical, idealistic fantasy?"
"And apparently," he continues, voice bitter. "I'm an extremist despot bent on destroying the traditional Fire Nation way of life. They didn't even call my father a despot!"
The old Zuko would have been furious at this, but he just sounds sad.
"That's what people are saying?"
"Writing actually. The second I make it legal to express one's opinion…"
"So you're reading editorials about yourself?" she asks, careful not to sound too amused. "Look, Sparky, you can't please every single per-"
"That's not the problem," he says edgily. "I can't please anyone. They're not…they haven't…" He sighs. "It's just, when I took the throne, I didn't think it would be easy. Realizing what I had always believed to be right and good was just the opposite had hardly been a walk in the park, but I got it eventually, right? But it's like they don't even care that the war was wrong. It's been so ingrained in them-it's been one hundred years-that they don't even understand why I pulled our armies and colonial governments out of the Earth Kingdom. All they know is that our economy is suffering because we haven't done anything but make war on other nations for the past century and now we don't know how to do anything else. Popular opinion dictates that I should restart the war. It's been five years and they still teach children that the other nations are inferior in schools."
"You can't put a stop to that?" Toph asked.
"Insert my own propaganda, in lieu of my father's?" he responds, scoffing. "Even if I could, I wouldn't. That's no way to run a country."
"But it's not propaganda," Toph objects vehemently. "It's the truth!"
"They don't see it that way," Zuko says, like that's a valid explanation, and Toph is reminded why she's never paid attention to politics. It makes absolutely no sense. "There'd be riots."
"Then let'em riot," Toph says defiantly. She finds it hard to have sympathy for stupid, ignorant Fire Nation citizens. "They'll just end up hurting themselves."
"And possibly hundreds of other citizens," Zuko says dryly. "Besides, I have no soldiers to break them up, since I disbanded the army. I had to ask Sokka and Katara's father for help when Earth Kingdom villagers started targeting Fire Nation citizens living in what used to be the colonies. And even then he only came with help because I sprang him out of prison. I'm just so…tired."
He groans and lets his head fall into his hands. "I didn't realize how unqualified I was when I started all this."
"Hey," Toph says, sliding down next to him and punching him on the shoulder lightly. "The war's been going on for a hundred years. You've only been in power for five. And you've done great so far. The boundaries between the Four Nations are back to where they were before the war and…well, yeah. That's a good thing, isn't it?"
"But it's not enough!" Zuko says angrily, sounding like the boy she knew for the first time that night. "There are so many problems! The schools, the economy, how every single other nation hates our guts. And we deserve it! They're my people, Toph," he says, hands clenched in his hair so hard that she's afraid he's going to tear some out. "They're my people and I can't even save them from themselves!"
"You can't just expect all the pain and suffering that has been going on these past hundred years to just disappear!" Toph says gently, more gently than she's spoken in ages. "These sorts of things take time. Tons of time. You may not even live to see the Fire Nation the way you want it to be. But the important thing is to keep going, because you're making progress and you've come too far to stop now."
"I know that," Zuko says in frustration, but he's not talking to her as much as he's talking to himself. "I know that. But there's so many things to do, so many things to fix. Like this whole war would never have started if my great-grandfather hadn't had absolute power. If there was some sort of way of checking that, some way the common people could have more of a say, but if that happens, I can't achieve what needs to be done!"
"You really are a radical," Toph says in surprise and then yanks his shoulder towards her so that he's forced to look right at her.
"You," she says firmly. "are an idiot. You're being much too hard on yourself. And you don't have to be alone. I mean, I'm not too great at this sort of thing," she says quickly. "but problems with unity and balance sounds like Avatar stuff. I'm sure Twinkletoes would be happy to stop by and help out."
"They hate Aang here," Zuko says miserably. "Almost as much as they hate me. Besides, he's done his part, and he and Katara are married now…I don't want to intrude on that. And Uncle's just getting the quiet life he wanted in Ba Sing Se…this is something I have to do myself."
"But you're killing yourself," Toph wants to say, but before she can even open her mouth, there are footsteps on the stairs.
"Someone's coming," she hisses, and Zuko drags her to the far end of the hall and around the corner.
"I think we've taken a wrong turn somewhere," a man's voice says on the other end of the hallway.
"A wrong turn? We walked up two flights of stairs, you imbecile!" a female voice replies and Toph gets into her fighting stance and is about to throw them out the second floor window when she realizes the absurdity of the situation.
"Uh, Sparky?" she asks quietly, even though the couple is arguing so loudly that they probably wouldn't be able to hear her even if she was speaking in her normal voice. "Why are we hiding from your guests?"
"Because I don't want to talk to them," he whispers moodily. "What are they still doing here anyway? I only left a little early. The party should be over by now."
Suddenly, completely out of nowhere, Toph becomes acutely aware of Zuko's hand which is still on her upper arm, the scent of his skin mere inches away from hers, and the conspiratorial way he's pressed against the wall. She swallows and thinks. "No, no, no, don't you dare," but it is only a small part of her that she finds easy to ignore.
"Zuko," she says softly. He turns to look at her, and she feels his cheeks heat up, just a little. He's probably just realized how close they are. But he doesn't move away. She feels his heart rate speed up and his next inhale is a little too sharp. And while two nobles argue just several doors down, Toph leans in and kisses him.
If the world made sense, Zuko would've stiffened up and pushed her away. If the world made sense, Toph probably wouldn't've kissed him in the first place. But the world does not make sense, so Zuko puts his arm around her waist and kisses her back.
"This is insane," Toph thinks, and presses herself closer to his chest, hands reaching to wrap around his neck and grip his hair.
Zuko is a surprisingly good kisser. It's not that she thought he would be awful…well, okay, maybe she did. He just doesn't seem like the type considering all the awkward stuttering and how uptight he was, especially when they went to see that stupid play on Ember Island. (Well, okay, the ending was stupid. But Toph still maintains that the beginning was pure gold.)
Either way, she sure as hell isn't complaining and brings one hand up to touch his face. She breaks away as her fingers span his chin, the bridge of his nose, the sides of his face up to the burn scar that she didn't know existed until Katara mentioned it, days after Zuko joined them. Even though Toph has gotten better at 'seeing' details-to the point that she can use Earthbending to feel the contours of people's faces if they are close enough-there is no substitute for touch. Some of her former lovers were unnerved by her need to map out their faces, but Zuko gives no sign of moving away and stands still, letting her examine his face, his hot breath fanning the side of her face.
She presses her mouth to his again, hand still cupping his scar. It is bigger than she thought it would be, extending far beyond the hairline, shriveling his left ear. It is eight years old, but it doesn't even feel half that. It feels painful and raw.
Everyone knows the story how Fire Lord Zuko got his scar, but it only became common knowledge after the war. Toph remembers feeling sick when she first heard it. How could a father consciously do that to his child? she remembers thinking. She hadn't known how bad it was at the time, but the way everyone's voices dropped when they spoke about it was telling.
She wants to stretch up and kiss it, but she doesn't know how Zuko would react to that, so she lets her hand fall to his shoulder, the fine silk of his robe too soft between her fingers, titling her neck back. Zuko kisses it, hand moving to cup the side of her right breast and Toph thinks "Fuck it," and slides her hands through his hair so violently that his topknot falls apart and the Fire Lord headpiece hits the marble floor with a loud clang. Zuko is startled momentarily and she takes the opportunity to press quick, light kisses to his jaw. He groans softly and Toph feels an inordinate amount of triumph at the sound. She must admit that she always found Zuko's voice attractive, even when she still had that embarrassing crush on Sokka.
Zuko is an idiot. A complete moron who thinks he has to save the whole world right away, all by himself. He's impatient, a workaholic, most likely some crazy radical and Toph wants him so much it's all she can do to not shove him against the wall and have her way with him.
Zuko is back to kissing her neck again and part of her is honestly surprised that he's able to do it without exploding in embarrassment. Of course, he and Mai were together for quite a while, so he must have some experien-
Zuko kisses her roughly on the mouth again, hand tightening on her breast and Toph's train of thought promptly derails.
"Bed," she demands when they part for air, fingers digging into his shoulders in earnest now, eager for the stupid, too-soft silk to be relocated.
"Right," he replies slightly breathlessly, without skipping a beat, hands ghosting up and down her hips and outer thighs. "This way."
He grabs her hand and pulls her down the hallway, ducking to grab the headpiece as he goes. Toph would make some ironic remark, but she knows from experience that lust makes her a lot less witty, so she keeps her mouth shut.
The noble couple is gone now (thank the spirits) and whether they left looking for the way out or because they heard something Toph does not know or particularly care.
For a second, Toph thinks they are going to go down the stairs, but then they turn and go down a completely different hallway, through several sets of double door and finally to a large chamber at the end of the hallway.
"Nice place you got here, fancy pants," Toph says. The room is large with a king size canopy bed in the center with a banner hanging over it. Toph would be willing to bet her life that there's a Fire Nation insignia on it.
Zuko closes the door and turns toward her, shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other. Toph rolls her eyes, grabs him by the collar, pressing her whole body against his, pressing an openmouthed kiss to the pulse point on his neck. Zuko moans and she pushes aside the folds of his stupid robe until her fingers come in contact with skin. They stumble towards the center of the room and Toph shoves him onto the bed, ignoring his hiss of annoyance.
"Fuck, you're sensitive," Toph grumbles.
"Shut up," Zuko tells her without heat and pulls her onto the bed.
She straddles his hips, mouth slick against his, and he helps her rid himself of the idiotic robe that Toph has half a mind to bury deep where no one will be able to find it ever again. Toph runs her hands over his chest and feels other scars, the most prominent of which the one Azula gave him on the last day of the war. Toph leans down and kisses it, grinding her hips against his just a little, and Zuko groans, his hands finding the buttons on the side of her dress.
Well that won't do. It took Toph fifteen minutes to figure out how to button those buttons and she does not have fifteen minutes to spare.
"Let me," she murmurs and takes both hands and rips the delicate fabric in a tear all the way down to her knee. She extricates herself from the dress and throws it behind her, naked except for her underwear and the bindings around her breasts. Zuko sits up, kissing her with a gentleness that Toph neither needs or wants and undoes the bindings. Toph lifts her arms up and kisses him fiercely, groaning as Zuko slides one hand around her lower back. The bindings fall and she brings her hands down and hooks her thumbs between the hem of his pants (which are thankfully not silk) and skin. She moves back a little and pulls the hair chopsticks or whatever they're called out of her bun and shakes out her long hair so that it falls past her shoulders.
It is an over-dramatic motion, but this is Zuko, so she figures he can appreciate it.
And by the way his cheeks heat up and his heartbeat accelerates, he sure as hell does.
Toph smirks, but he cuts her off before she can say anything sarcastic, wrapping an arm tight around her waist and tangling his fingers in her hair. Not to be outdone, Toph presses her torso and hips to his, and grips his hair tightly. He flips them over so her head hits an over fluffed pillow and he kisses a long line down her chest. Toph grips his shoulders tightly and hooks her ankles around his waist, saying, "Fuck, Zuko, you are so slow, hurry up, fuck, fuck, fuck."
Afterwards, Toph lies on her back with her arms crossed under her head, and tells him everything.
She talks about how when she finally worked up the courage to face her parents it was not at all what she expected. Up until then, for her, the world was mostly black and white. She expected to be welcomed back and treated like the person she was, or thrown out completely. But neither of those two scenarios actually happened. Her parents cried when she returned (it was so embarrassing) and hugged her and let her sleep in her old room. But they didn't treat her any differently than they had before. They scolded her when she tried to leave the house by herself, called servants to practically feed her her meals, and seemed horrified when she tried to show them her Earthbending. Up until then, Toph had always assumed her parents were normal. After all, what parent wouldn't be fearful for her daughter's safety if she were blind? What parent would be willing to let their daughter run off to teach the Avatar Earthbending while he was hunted by the Fire Nation? And anyway, it wasn't like she had any good role models of what good parents were supposed to do. Aang was raised by monks, Katara and Sokka's mother was dead and their father had left them to fight in the war. Zuko's mother seemed to have disappeared off the face of the Earth and his father burned half his face off and banished him for talking out of turn. How was she to know what was normal?
She tells him how she tried to explain to them one last time who she really was. And they…they didn't get it. They denied it. So she packed her things because she didn't know what else to do. She went to Ba Sing Se to ask Iroh for advice…and… and he told her to let them go. She was so angry at that. Her parents loved her, didn't they have to see reason if they loved her? But Iroh shook his head sadly and said that it didn't mean they knew what was best for her. But she refused to accept that so she left Ba Sing Se as well. There was nowhere for her to go, she explains. Sokka was with Suki and then spending all his time in and between the Poles, and Aang and Katara were off traveling the world and repopulating the Air Temples, and he was busy ruling a country. So she had spent the last three years mostly alone, except for brief reunions with her only friends in the world and the occasional fuck when the loneliness got too much to bear.
By the end of it all, Toph has to close her eyes so tears won't fall out.
"So I just wanted to let you know," she says when she feels she can speak normally again, "that you're not the only miserable one here."
Zuko doesn't say anything for awhile. He's lying on his side with a bent arm propping up his head and it's all so adult and strange. Because on some level Zuko will always be the more than slightly dorky teenager that had blushed so heavily when all she'd wanted was a life changing fieldtrip.
"I don't think miserable is the right word," he says contemplatively. "I can't speak for you, but I'm just worn-out. And a bit lonely, I guess. I haven't seen Uncle in almost a year and ever since Mai…and I didn't work out…" He shrugs uncomfortably. "Not to mention my mother…"
"What did happen with that?" Toph asks. "I haven't heard anything, so I just assumed that-"
"I hadn't found her?" he finishes. "No, I haven't. I looked for a whil- a long time. Followed her trail through the northern Earth Kingdom, until I couldn't deny that it was obvious she wasn't ready to come back yet."
"What?" Toph questions, startled.
He shrugs again. "It's just that…I mean, I'm the Fire Lord. I have been for five years. No matter how remote of a place you live in the world, you'd have to have heard by now, especially with how mad I'm making everybody." He says the last part with a bit of a sardonic grin. "And I know she's alive-I've met people who ran into her-so, I think she's probably just not ready yet. I mean, with what she did…"
Toph is one of the few people who knows exactly how Princess Ursa came to be banished, so she just nods.
"And that's not even taking Azula into account," he says, groaning, and laying back to cover his face with his hands. "I swear every time I visit her she's ten times worse. She didn't even recognize me last time."
"Look," Toph interjects. "You know, that's not your fault."
"I know," he says simply. "But she's still my sister." He exhales deeply, touching his scar absentmindedly.
"I think that for people like us," he says, "happy endings were a bit too much to ask."
The strange thing is, Toph really likes the sound of that, no matter how depressing of a sentiment it is. The 'people like us' part makes her warm in a way that has lay dormant for a long time.
"Fairy tale endings did always suck, though," Toph says, feeling inexplicably cheerful. "I'll let Twinkletoes and Sugarqueen have the sappy romance. I'll take a good old-fashioned one-night stand any day!"
"Oh, thanks," Zuko mutters.
"Hey, it's a compliment!" Toph says, bringing her knees up and folding one leg over the other. "I mean, I bet Katara and Aang are awful in bed, don't you?"
"I was so shocked that they actually got through the honeymoon alive. I figured the second Katara got naked Twinkletoes's head would explode."
Zuko makes a choking noise, but Toph ignores him. After all, it could be unrelated.
"Though I guess it's not that surprising," she continues. "I mean, I pegged you as that head-exploding type too, but spirits, the things you can do with your fingers are-"
"Oh, please, shut up!" Zuko interrupts, sounding horrified.
"Am I offending your prudish sensibilities, Fire Lord Hotpants?" Toph queries in her most snooty voice, and then. "Heeey, double meaning! I think I'm going to call you that in public now."
"Toph," Zuko says warningly, face flushed in embarrassment.
…It's actually kind of cute, in a weird, twisted sort of way. Crap, not good, now she'll want to keep him.
But seriously, she has no idea why he's being such a baby about the whole thing. He cannot possibly be that much of a prude to object to being told he's good in bed, can he?
"Oh, lighten up," she says, whacking him in the ribs. "What would you prefer? Hotpants or Fire Lord Cock-"
Zuko makes a sound between a shout and a groan, and chucks a pillow at her, possibly one of the girliest things he's ever done. It's up against quite a few good contenders though.
But of course, Toph has to make the standard dirty pillow fight joke, and it all goes downhill from there.
She stays after that. It's not like there's anywhere else for her to go, though she does venture back once into Ba Sing Se to apologize to Iroh for her rude behavior. He was right, as he always is. It just took her some time to realize it. He tries to convince her to stay, but she has to go back to the Fire Nation to make sure Zuko doesn't do anything idiotic like piss off the 0.00001 percent of the country that doesn't want him dead. It annoys her how much she thinks about him while she's away, except not because she's happier than she's been in years. And unlike certain rulers of ex-world-dominating countries, she likes being angst-free.
A few months after their scandalous liaison (Toph likes the word liaison. It's so…lurid,) Aang and Katara come to visit. By the surprise they exhibit when she greets them just inside the palace gates she knows they have heard the rumors, but hadn't quite believed them until now.
"Toph…" Aang says, smiling a little uneasily. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Hey, Twinkletoes, Sugar Queen," Toph says, taking a few steps forward. "How's it going? Any buns in the oven yet?"
"Toph!" Katara hisses in embarrassment, her cheeks heating up. "Don't be so crude! And no. We're still very young, you know, and…waiting."
"Uh huh," Toph says, leaning in interestedly, "and how's that going?"
"None of your business," Katara says tactfully, spoiling Toph's quest to learn about and make fun of their sex life.
"So…" Aang says awkwardly. "Have you, um, been here long?"
"A couple months," Toph says flippantly, gesturing at them to follow her through the courtyard up to the palace. "Someone has to make sure Mr. Sleeping-is-for-the-weak doesn't die of self-neglect. And living with royalty does have its perks, you know," she says, winking.
"How so?" Katara asks, her voice just a little less nonchalant than she was probably going for.
"Oh, you know," Toph says vaguely as they walk down the long polished hallway to the library where Zuko is busy with his new pet project of rooting out all the books with anti-Air Nomad, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribe propaganda. "The food is great, there's always crazies to beat up, etcetera, etcetera."
"Sounds like fun," Katara says in a surprisingly un-sarcastic tone. "How's Zuko been?"
"Insane," Toph says solemnly. "The usual, you know. He's into this whole alternative government phase thing. He'll want your input on the social and economic policies of the Air Nomadic culture, Aang."
"My response exactly," Toph sighs, as they reach the library door. "I think he wants people to think he's crazy."
"I heard that," Zuko calls peevishly from the other side of the door.
Toph grins without apology and enters, taking note of the huge piles of books and scrolls everywhere and the empty shelves.
"Told you," she whispers.
"Aang, Katara," Zuko says happily, standing up to hug them. "So good of you to come and visit."
"Always a pleasure," Katara says politely. "Um, what are you doing?"
"Just sorting through these books," Zuko says shrugging his shoulders like it's something normal Fire Lords do in their rare free time. "Most of the history ones are full of total lies, so I figured I'd get rid of them."
"Don't you have, like, servants to do that for you?" Aang questions.
"Don't be stupid, Twinkletoes," Toph says rolling his eyes. "He needs people with actual brains to do that."
"Toph…" Zuko says reprovingly.
"What? So I'm a little biased after the whole incident in the kitchens. Or had you forgotten that?"
She hopes he hasn't. She's pretty sure it was memorable in more ways than one.
"What incident in the kitchens?" Aang asks innocently, which may have worked when he was twelve, but certainly doesn't work now.
"N-Nothing," Zuko says, face burning. "You must be tired from your journey. Would you like some refreshments?"
They seem to let it go after that, but later that night, after dinner when she's sitting by the koi pond in the garden, Katara sits down next to her and clears her throat.
"So," she says, determined and awkward at the same time. "You and Zuko, huh?"
Toph pauses a moment before proceeding, because for all her bluster, she does actually care what Katara thinks of her.
"Yup," she responds. "Pretty much."
"Wow, that's…umm…How long exactly have you two been…?"
"You're weirded out," Toph says dully.
"No! No, of course no-" Katara says vehemently. "Okay, maybe a little. But…it's just so unexpected. I mean, none of us would have guessed. I mean, Aang and I did hear some vile rumors, but we just assumed that it was just gossip."
"'Vile rumors," Toph repeats, turning her face towards her and raising an eyebrow.
"No, I didn't mean- I mean, what they were saying about you was horrible. It wasn't just that you and Zuko were…" she stumbles over the words, "together. They were saying other awful stuff too."
Toph can guess what they were saying, but she doesn't really care. Katara is a little more freaked out than she's letting on, but the fact that she's bothering to hide it tells a lot. It would be okay, eventually.
"I'm happy for you," Katara says gently. "Really, I am. Sokka said the last time he saw you, you seemed kind of lonely, so…yeah."
Toph's throat goes dry and she has to cough a few times in order to speak properly.
"Thanks, Katara," she murmurs and feels Katara smile.
After Katara retires to her and Aang's room, Toph goes down to the part of the courtyard where Appa is staying to say hello. She's missed him too, even though she never really liked flying on him.
She walks back to the library where Zuko is studying a small scroll and plops down in a chair across from him.
He puts the scroll down on the table and leans back in his chair, groaning.
"They know, don't they?" he asks.
"They heard the rumors," Toph says fairly. "And besides, they're our friends. Did you really want to hide it from them?"
"I suppose not," he says tiredly. "I just didn't want it to be weird. I mean, I met you when you were twelve."
"You do realize this is Aang and Katara we're talking about," Toph says in amusement. "They're hardly ones to judge."
"True," Zuko says, mouth curving into a smile. "Aang was twelve, wasn't he, when he and Katara first-"
"Which means you beat them by a whopping five years. Congratulations, Fire Lord Cradle Robber!"
He scowls at that and Toph places her palms on the lacquer of the table and leans over to capture his mouth with hers.
He kisses back at first, but just as Toph is about to circumvent the table to get closer, he pulls away.
"I really should finish this," he says, though the way his hot breath fans her cheek tells her otherwise.
"Right," Toph says, maneuvering around the table to stand in front of him. "Because the world will end if you don't rid the Royal Palace Library of those nefarious books."
His eyes narrow. "Well, I have to get rid of them sometime and it mig-Mmff!"
Toph wraps her arms around his neck, shoves his legs apart, and presses her whole body flush against his.
"You can do it tomorrow morning," she tells him when they part for breath.
"I was actually thinking sometime around noon," he murmurs in her ear.
"I like how you think," she says, stroking his bangs back in an unusually tender gesture.
He presses a light kiss to her mouth, hands sliding down her waist, and then she drags him away before he can change his mind
It won't be this way forever, of course. It can't be because terrifying the shit out of the guards and horrifying the court will probably get old. Probably. But she realizes that it can't be forever for Zuko either, precedent of life-long dictators be damned. He'll have to get out eventually, or he'll go even more insane than he already is. He probably already has some crazy plan involving radical reformation of the Fire Nation government, to be implemented when his people have stopped being such war mongering morons. And then he'll skip off to travel the world again like he's so ironically missed, and she'll be there too, just to make things interesting.
She can barely wait because it's going to be fucking amazing.