I blame this on my brother, who loves his TV series and subsequently got me hooked for a short while. Toph is a character I immediately fell in love with, and after doing some research on youtube and wikipedia this is the end result.
I don't own Avatar, so don't sue me. This is only for my personal amusement.
It had all begun as a simple request. Iroh had come to love the feisty Toph in the years after Fire Lord Ozai had been dethroned. She had visited often when not roaming the lands in search of interesting adventures, sometimes accompanying the Avatar and Katara to fight in areas of unrest, visiting Kyoshi Island where Sokka had somehow convinced Yuki he was worth marrying or answering the call of her own Earth Kingdom in times of need. She still hated cities, but she understood that they were a necessary part of her people's society.
On her visits, she would never come to the palace itself. The massive structure held no charm for her, regardless of how majestic its peaks and towers were. Instead, with Zuko on the throne, she would come to the country estate Iroh had been rewarded with for his many years of support for the then young prince.
There the old man contentedly sipped his fine teas, cared for the vast gardens that surrounded his small mansion and played Pai Sho to his hearts content. Of course, he was always available for counsel or even just a good conversation should the new Fire Lord require his presence, but the old man was well past his prime and had earned himself a rest.
Of course, every time Toph visited because she refused to visit the palace itself, out of courtesy's sake, Iroh would invite his nephew to visit for a day or two during her stay so they could drink tea or eat a meal together. The young people tolerated each other's presence of his sake, and the past was left behind them. Usually the young man would only travel out there for an hour or so at a time, and while he generally did not despise the visits between his uncle's slow nature and the quick wit of their guest he was pleased not to spend too much time with them. Still, as he found himself lacking friends among the court (can you blame them? He did kill his father for the throne) and no one to speak to without being constantly on guard at the palace, the visits became an escape from the constrained life he found himself living.
Years went by like this, yet with the decline of his uncle's health, her visits became more frequent and lengthy as if her presence could so how help turn back the wheels of time for him. Twice his health reached the state of collapse, twice Toph personally traveled to find Katara and Aang to treat his condition, and twice he was nursed back to a very healthy state for a year or so more. The third time, they were too late. His body was old and scarred from his years as a soldier and traveler, the cost of firebending had taken its toll, there was nothing even Katara could do but try and make his last few days more comfortable.
The day after they realized this, Iroh made his simple request. Everyone left, and he sat there alone with his nephew, noting the changes that had come to his face as the boy had finally transformed fully into a man.
"You have been more than generous with me," he told the Fire Lord as he lay in his bed, propped up by pillows that he could barely lift his head from. "But I have one last selfish request."
"A game of Pai Sho?" guessed Zuko with a wry smile. "A pot of your favorite tea? Name it and it is yours. If it is within my power, I will give it to you gladly."
"Thankfully, it is but a simple request. You are to inherit my estate after I leave here," Iroh chuckled weakly. "But this mansion, the gardens, and the things in it…I would like to give to another."
Zuko's brows lifted in surprise. "Who?"
"Toph. She has kept me company these years, bringing me news of the outside world and putting up with an old man's eccentric wishes for weeks at a time," he replied with another laugh. "If my son had lived to have children, I would hope one of them would be much like her. So lively, we have had the most interesting conversations…"
"I don't need your inheritance," Zuko replied carefully with a slight smile. "I am a King, and will be cared for until the end of my days. Your estate it yours to do with as you please, I leave the choice of who you leave it to in your hands."
"Thank you, you are so kind to me," he replied with a satisfied sigh, sinking back into his pillows before calling for Toph to relay the news. Honestly, the Fire Lord didn't expect the wandering Earth Master to actually accept the gift. Charity was something she despised with a passion, and the only reason she visited again and again was because of Iroh. With him gone, what was there left for her here? His Pai Sho board? The teas?
So when a magistrate was called later that evening and a new will was drawn up naming Toph as the main successor of Iroh's estate, the Fire Lord wasn't sure how to feel. There was no sense of betrayal as one might expect, Iroh had asked before giving the estate to another, and truly while the sum of the inheritance might be able to set Toph for life should she desire to retire from traveling when compared to what he owned with his palace, treasuries and guard it was a paltry sum indeed. No, even surrendering his uncle's things did not seem so important. That which mattered to him had been gifted to him over the years and most of what Iroh owned were related to his garden, his Pai Sho set, or his teas. None of which Zuko actually had any attachment with. The minor title (she would now be a lady in two nations), the fine collections (mainly of instruments and tea sets), the automatic citizenship (she could already travel among all the nations without being challenged for her right to be there, that usually happened to heroes) none of it mattered to him. Yet he could not say that he was honestly pleased or displeased with the situation.
Iroh passed within a week of the request, a quiet death in his sleep with his favorite lotus piece clutched in one hand. The piece was burned with him at his crematory ceremony, the only time Toph agreed to go into the palace itself after the final battle six years before. Many attended to mourn the passage of such a fine man, a feast following that Toph escaped as soon as she could.
Generally the Fire Lord didn't bother himself with the comings and goings of his citizens, even those of the elite, but when word reached his ears that the Earth Master had left a week after the ceremony he mused that perhaps his uncle's generosity would be a waste. When would the girl come back to an empty house? A year from now? Two years? Would she even return at all?
Months passed, eventually it reached a year from the day his grandfather had died and the reports about the little Earth Bender were varied and hard to pin down. At first he had ignored them, but eventually when he heard she had returned he would send an inquiry as to how she was doing and would receive a reply from her steward that she had just left again the day before, though she seemed in fine health at the time, or that she had not been home in some time but would be sure to notify her immediately of his inquiry when she returned again. To the grave he rode among his soldiers, telling them to stay back as he approached the grave and finding himself surprisingly not along.
A familiar figure knelt before the memorial, bare feet sticking out from worn green pants with a patterned tan, green and brown tunic over it that left the bottom half of her arms bare. Hair in the flat, gravity-defying bun that kept it all safely tucked away and her bangs hanging in her milky green eyes, he smiled slightly in spite of herself as she gracefully rose to her feet.
"It's good your uncle taught you to respect the dead, princess," said Toph as she turned towards him with a smirk.
"He is worth respecting," he replied lightly as he stopped a few feet away, noting the bundle of his uncle's favorite flowers already laid out before the plaque. "Most people would expect me to throw you in jail for calling me that."
"Try it, cupcake, and I would be forced to beat you," she replied simply, sightless eyes focused over his shoulder though her feet shifted automatically into her stance. "Shouldn't be too hard, you've probably gone soft living in the palace being pampered all the time."
"You never change," he said, unable to tell himself whether it was a compliment or insult.
Her smirk just grew wider. "I know."
They bantered for a few more moments, the Fire Lord lighting the incense for his uncle before she invited him over for some of the old man's tea. She seemed a bit surprised the words even came out of her mouth. He was even more surprised when his traitorous tongue accepted.
The house was just as he remembered. The inside immaculately clean if a bit cluttered with the various odds and ends his uncle loved to collect and the gardens still wildly beautiful with various flowers in bloom. The weather itself was cold so they soon retreated from the gardens to back inside.
"Shall I bring the tea to the main library?" asked the steward, one of the three hired hands left besides the gardeners to care for the estate in her absence.
"No, to my room," she replied simply, ignoring his protests that it was not suited to entertaining the Fire Lord with a snort. "Please, I have never done things to please this princess, I never will."
"Nice to know you hold me in such high regard," he said flatly as she led the way to a wing he could only remember visiting once when the building had first been purchased for his uncle. It was far wing of the house, set apart from most of it by a covered walk way, was where he saw the first sign of influence from the Earth Master. The reds and maroons that had decorated the main halls were replaced by browns and greens, the floors left bare so their feet trod on the cool stone tiles and the doorways simple arches with nothing blocking the way.
The room they entered was the first on the right, a low fire in the grate for heating purposes and the lamps left unlit.
"Feel free to light something if it's too dark for you," she said when he hesitated by the threshold. "It makes no difference to me."
He lit a candle and used it to light his way, the tea quickly arriving as they sat at a low table with comfortable but simple cushions beneath them. The steward served it, retiring to the back corner of the room as the two sat there and sipped the dark liquid.
"Jasmine, one of Uncle's favorites," said Zuko, unsure what else there was to speak about. "Tea was one of the few things he could never grow tired of."
"Mm, he knew how to live," she agreed with a small smile. The rest of the tea was finished in silence, contemplating the old man before the Fire Lord rose to his feet, thanking her for her hospitality and turning to leave.
"Will you stay here?" he asked just before he reached the door, glancing back at her to see her lips purse slightly.
"Some," she replied with a vague shrug. "I travel a great deal, but it seems my travels always bring me back here…"
"Ah. Until next year, then."
"Until next year."
The Fire Lord put the intriguing Earth Master from his mind, and the thought of thinking of her again did not occur to him until a message arrived inviting him for an evening meal not three months after their previous encounter. He agreed to come out of curiosity and a desire to honor a dear friend of his uncle's, so when he arrived to find the main dining hall set with a grand display of Earth Kingdom delights he was even further intrigued and confused.
Toph was not long in arriving, coming through the door in what appeared to be travel stained clothes with her steward fluttering nervously in her wake. A package wrapped in rough brown paper was carried under her arm and after informing the old man she didn't care if she was entertaining the Fire Lord her state of dress was fine she sat herself at one end of the table and waved lazily for him to do the same.
"I suppose I should explain so the old goat doesn't have a stroke," she said by way of greeting as she picked up her cup and poured herself some water, Zuko suddenly realizing all of the place settings were formed of stone or ceramic. He nodded when a serving girl came to his right elbow with a pitcher; carefully pouring his favorite wine from his uncle's stores (had Toph actually remembered?) into his stone goblet.
"You look like you just got off the boat," he replied when nothing more came, Toph having selected a few slices of fruit for herself and was eating them hungrily with little regard for company or manners. He took this as a signal that he could begin as well, starting with some sort of meat in a white sauce that looked delicious. It felt strange to serve himself after living as a king for all these years, but it seemed Toph's preferences for propriety had remained unchanged.
"I did just get off a boat," she sighed with a faint grimace. "Weather made travel slow; I arrived only a little while before you did."
"Your invitation arrived two weeks ago," he pointed out, brows lowered in puzzlement as he took another sip of the wine. "I do not understand."
"I sent word ahead to the Steward; he was to invite you for me. I know how long it takes requests to be processed at a palace, and I didn't want to wait forever to give this to you." Toph patted the package beside her with one calloused hand, the dirt under her fingernails visible from where the Fire Lord was sitting. "I was supposed to arrive over a week ago."
"Oh." He studied the package from where he sat nibbling politely on steamed vegetables that he was only vaguely familiar with. The mixture of butter and herbs felt odd on his tongue, especially when he was used to the spicy food of his land, but it was a pleasant change. Toph resumed her quick consumption of the spread, leaving him to wonder until he finally asked, "What is it?"
"A gift and letter from Aang," she explained with a smirk. "Here." She tossed it at his head, the smirk widening when he barely caught it and set it in his lap. The paper fell away to reveal a wooden box that contained a neatly folded piece of paper and bronze medallion that had the word 'peace' inscribed upon it. The other side held the Fire Nation symbol set it black stone. The letter was quickly scanned, his host ignoring him as she enjoyed a strange pastry-type food that seemed to be filled with chunks of meat and various vegetables. "So?" she asked when she sensed him set it back down on the table, resuming his own meal.
"I know what it says," she interrupted with a hint of impatience. "A simple request: attending the peace conference, meeting of heads of the nations to discuss policy, blah blah blah. Are you going?"
"I don't have much of a choice," he replied dryly, somewhat annoyed that she had been informed before him. "The Fire Nation is still not trusted. I must take every opportunity given to gain the respect and trust of other Nations, our economy has suffered now that we must trade for that which we used to gain for free."
"That would be the downside of being one of the losers in a war," she remarked as she popped another piece of fruit in her mouth. "I'll be there, the Earth King of Ba Sing Sei already asked me to come as his private escort for the trip there and back."
"Technically you're part of the Fire Nation now, I'm surprised they still trust you," he prodded with a satisfying smirk. "Or are they unaware of your duel citizenship?"
"I'm an Earth-bending Master, it doesn't matter where I live I'm aligned with the Earth Kingdom, princess," she retorted, frowning as she kicked up a column to lean on behind her back. "I'm surprised you let me roam here as freely as you do, knowing that."
"You're friends with the Avatar, who is possibly the biggest pacifist currently alive," Zuko murmured as he drank his wine. "You're already too attached to his name to try and cause trouble. Besides, how am I to stop you? It is a wasted effort to try and do so, and a trial my men don't deserve to be put through."
Her smirk returned full force. "Point."
The banter was sharp and light as usual, pricks and barbs easily deflected until the meal was finished and he politely thanked her as a Fire Lord should. She just burped in reply and said to thank the cook, all she'd done was walk in the door. He laughed softly and left, the Earth Master not even bothering to get to her feet as he walked away. The steward grumped within her hearing that she would be stripped of her title for her constant rudeness; she just laughed at him and replied the Fire Lord cared too much for his uncle's memory to even think about doing so.
The travel arrangements were made; the place set (an island that hailed to none of the nations specifically and with the perfect accommodations so everyone could keep an eye on his neighbor (a.k.a. the Fire Nation) without feeling shoved on top of each other) and a date agreed upon. True to her word, Toph was there, and in clean new clothes for the first time that the Fire Lord could remember as she stood beside the King of Ba Sing Sei. King Bumi was present, as was the King of the Northern Water Tribe and Sokka and Katara's father, who was the leader of the Southern Water Tribe. Aang, of course, was the representative for all of the Air Temples with Katara at his side and a baby slung on his loved one's back.
The first meeting was simply an introduction all around, everyone eyeing the newest Fire Lord carefully with the exception of those who had traveled with him in the past. The break until the afternoon meeting, which would cover the military allowances for each Nation, left Zuko feeling more lonely than he had in awhile as everyone else split to their various wings and rooms in the company of their friends, some inviting others over to share in their meal. His guards remained in their wing, everyone safe in this place of peace (besides, no one would dare attack with the Avatar and his famous friends present) and so he found his feet wandering aimlessly down the halls and breezeways for the time being.
Rounding a corner, he saw a familiar dark head bent over a small bundle in its lap in one of the grass lawns of the garden. Pausing, a corner of his mouth lifted slightly as he watched the baby laugh and try to grab the pebbles that levitated just out of its reach as its protector ran her fingers through his dark scrub of hair.
"Enjoying the view, princess?" she asked dourly when he didn't move for awhile, the Fire Lord rolling his eyes before he strolled over beside her.
"Not so much," he replied simply to disagree, though he realized with a start she was wearing a dress for once. The sleeves were short, just as her tunic had been, and the hem only reached her ankles, but it still carried the same geometric patterns as her old clothes did in the same basic hues. It's funny, he mused, he couldn't remember it happening but she had changed just enough that one could no longer mistaken her for a boy. "This is…?"
"Aang and Katara's boy," she finished, her voice lightening noticeably as one hand cupped the cherubic face below hers. "Gyatso, after some old monk."
"You're fond of children?" Zuko asked, now feeling somewhat desperate just to keep a conversation going where the other person wasn't looking for ulterior motives on his part the entire time. Being feared had its perks back home as it often brought immediate compliance rather than having to fight for it. However, as a direct result everyone outside of his Kingdom refused to treat with him on equal terms.
"Not particularly," she admitted with a light shrug. "This one's just…special."
They were interrupted by Aang who had come to collect his child and take Toph to visit with Sokka and Yuki who had arrived to see the others. Zuko was quickly absorbed with the meetings and presenting his ideas and suggestions in a docile way as possible. However, each proposal was shot down one by one. No, he could not keep more than half of the original Fire Nation fleet. No, he could not begin to rebuild certain defenses that had originally been agreed to be left down. No, he could not scout and train Fire Benders that cropped up from the people who have traveled to the lands the Fire Nation had once taken over. If they traveled to the Fire Nation on their own power, that was their deal. No, he could not move through any waters or lands that were not his with a guard force of more than twenty men unless given specific permission to do so by the leader of that Nation in writing and the other Nations made aware of it as well. And finally, no, his traders could not enter ports without having their ships searched.
"It wouldn't be just anyone who could sail into your ports without being searched," he argued desperately, trade having fallen off since the soldiers who went through the traders' ships were often less than gentle and very thorough. "They would have to have specific licensure, I would agree to almost any set of requirements you would impose as long as they could trade at your ports without the current hassle…"
"But any licensure that comes from you means we have to trust you that you didn't give them that licensure just to smuggle Fire Benders into the port to take over once more," one of the advisors who had come with the King of Ba Sing Sei argued. "The Fire Nation is not yet to be trusted!"
"Besides, what system could you implement even as the Fire Lord to be sure the traders aren't fooling you," added another. "It is no secret that many of your people would resume the war and try to devour our Nations once again if only given the chance."
"I would not give a trader the licensure without immovable proof that he would not do so," Zuko swore as sincerely as he could, but even he could see that despite Aang's obvious attempt to try and support the Fire Lord's promise the others would not budge.
"If you don't trust the Fire Lord," Katara's voice suddenly cut through the discussion. "Do you trust the Earth Master Toph?" Of course, they all quickly agreed, she was the Earth teacher of Aang, one of his fated companions and a legend in her ability to see using the vibrations she felt through her feet. "Well, then what if she had to personally test the traders before they could be given the licensure and add her own seal to the paperwork?"
Toph, who had only been listening with half an ear as she idly ate the apple she had brought with her, sat up quickly. "What?!"
"It'd be perfect," Aang added quickly. "Toph can sense lies with her Earth bending, anyone she's even remotely suspicious of doesn't get the seal. You're already in the Fire Nation at least a couple times a year, what's a couple times more?"
"I would agree to that," said King Bumi as quiet filled the air, the other Earth Nation representatives nodding their heads as the Water Tribes added their murmur of ascent. Aang obviously supported it, so all there was left was Toph…
"It's just a simple request," Katara told her softly when the young woman didn't speak right away.
"I suppose I can do that," she sighed after a few moments of thought, obviously irritated with the entire thing. "How often would I have to be there?"
"Once a month for a few days, I'll pare down the applicants to just a handful each month. You have complete and total final say over anyone who gets the pass," replied Zuko, willing to take any deal that gave his traders a chance for survival at this point in time. The restrictions could be renegotiated later down the road when they saw he truly had no desire to take over their lands.
And it was settled. The meetings only lasted a day longer, this time dealing with the Avatar himself and where he was planning on traveling to help the peoples of the various Nations. Toph, with her original agreement, was to travel with the Earth Nation representatives homeward, but promised to return to the Fire Nation within the month to begin her new duties there. Aang thanked her for her help, even as the resident pacifist he was having a hard time coming up with something to help the situation and Toph's involvement helped on many, many levels. The Earth Master had grumbled a reply before boarding the ship she was to ride back to the Earth Kingdom. Thankfully, her escort was taking the shortest route by sea, planning on spending the rest of time on land where their legendary protector was actually of use.
The Fire Lord returned to his own lands, drawing up the plans for the application process on the way and implementing it immediately upon his arrival. So when Toph returned and sent word she was ready to the palace he had a line up of six merchants and traders waiting when she arrived via his summons. The test itself took place out in the gardens, the men being brought to Toph one at a time where she lifted a slab of earth from the ground behind them and pressed another to their front so they were lightly pinned in place. It wasn't entirely necessary, but it did give the people she was questioning a sense of helplessness that would make them more honest. Or at least make their lies easier to spot. Asking the required questions from the list she had been presented she then deemed those who were worthy and those who were not of the group. Two received it, the rest failed.
As expected, the Earth Master left the Kingdom the next day for more of her travels, returning a month later to go through the duties again. She walked in from the escort he had provided for her (she hated riding in the carriage but it was the fastest way to get to the palace and she didn't want to waste more time than she already was) and gave him a slight smirk as he politely invited her to where a small table of refreshments had been set up while the merchants were gathered.
"How has your latest outing been?" he asked politely as they sat together at the table, the Earth Master allowing one of the servants to pour the tea for her. "Meet anyone new?"
"Not really," she admitted with a shrug. "Aang and Katara had to go on a last minute side trip to help some folks with a feud going on. Classic star-crossed lovers crap. It through some rough weather, so they left the kid with me for a week a few villages over and I determined I shall never have a child of my own."
"Not around young children much?" he replied just a touch dryly.
"Not if you don't count Twinkle Toes, Meathead and you when we were traveling together, for all your years you were all pretty childish," she replied smartly, her smirk gaining a triumphant edge when he immediately sat up straighter and glared at her venomously. "Aw, did I ruffle someone's feathers, princess?"
"Of course not," he growled, knowing she could hear the anger in his words and berating himself for it. Taking a deep breath, he quickly calmed himself and added, "I...was surprised with something."
"And what was that?" she taunted, hoping to get another amusing rise out of him.
"That you actually look like a girl today," he shot back, noting with a hint of satisfaction the way her brows lowered sharply beneath her long bangs and two spots of color appeared on her cheeks. "Have you done something different with your hair, Toph? You wouldn't be trying to catch someone's eye, would you?"
Her irate retort was drowned out by a servant announcing the merchants were gathered and ready and Zuko couldn't help but pity the men as Toph stomped off to complete her chore. She returned a few minutes later with three names in hand and a comment that two of those who hadn't passed would need fresh clothes before they could go home. Her seal (a stone piece she shaped with Earth bending in a complicated manner that few, if any could replicate) was placed beside Zuko's, and without further words she left once more. The Fire Lord felt slightly bad for baiting her like that; if Katara and Aang had been around they would have already besieged him with reasons as to why he should apologize. Still, what was done was done and it was no surprise to him when word reached him that she had left the next day for the Northern Water tribes.
The next three times she returned she refused to speak to him much, though he was really too busy keeping his hot-headed nobles and high-ranking army officers in line to care. The only thing that caught his attention was the final time on the way to her carriage he asked where she would be going next, simply for curiosity's sake.
"Nowhere," she replied, which surprised him so he asked why. "Princess, think about it. What's next week?" He grew quiet as that realization struck him. The two year anniversary of his uncle's death. "Because of that, I will remain here until the next month's 'testing'."
"Won't you get bored?" he heard himself ask, surprised that he even cared.
"Doubtful, your uncle's retainers are amusing in their attempts to 'civilize' me," she replied with a light-hearted laugh. "And if I need to wander, the Fire Nation countryside might yet yield a few things of interest. Until next time."
She was gone before he could formulate a reply, but less than a week later the Earth Master beat him there once again to his Uncle's grave with her bundle of flowers and respectful bow. Once again, she seemed just as surprised as he did when she invited him for tea. Once again, he was surprised even more that he accepted. The house hadn't changed in the least, even the room where they sat bearing the same low table in front of the fireplace and unlit lamps around the room save the one he placed near the table so he could see.
Talk was scant, the time spent mostly in silence, but it was a comfortable silence this time and as he rose to leave a short time later he thanked her for her hospitality. "It is nice to spend time with someone who understood and appreciated him as I did," he said softly with a sincerity that he meant even if he hadn't realized it before it was out of his mouth. "Thank you."
"He was an incredible man," was all she said in return, her face completely impassive for once without even a hint of a smirk. "You're welcome."
If the Fire Lord was more amused than angered by the reports of an Earth bender coming into the local villages around the capital and besting the greatest Fire benders there in one on one battles, no one dared question it. The month passed and soon it was time and the Bei Fong girl was there once more to question the merchants and give the names of two or three that deserved the seal. The sealed papers had become a thing of envy, and there was one account of a merchant being murdered by his fellow vendors for the right to enter ports without being searched. However, when they were caught and publicly executed in the most horrible ways everyone else seemed to get the hint and went back to trying to earn it the honest way.
Since the seals had to renewed every year, there was a month there Toph had to question six new traders and nearly a score of others that she had passed during the year before. One man's licensure was revoked, two others she suggested having watched though they were allowed to keep their seals because they weren't threats to the peace with other nations. Three of six she tested were given new licensure.
Zuko was satisfied with this pattern for his life, slowly the number of his traders that were prospering was growing, and many who had underlings involved in illegal practices had cleaned out their ranks for it was whispered among the commoners that Toph could see into their very hearts and discern all pretenses of right or wrong there. A goddess or spirit in mortal form, perhaps, for whom else had such wisdom? And she can see though her eyes are blind, that was simply not natural! They never had contact outside of these meetings save the once a year visit to his Uncle's grave, so when her steward arrived in a frantic state upon his doorstep in between the monthly meetings and two months before the next anniversary of his uncle's death he was somewhat surprised.
"Our lady has shut herself off from us in the garden for three days," he explained when the man was finally brought before the Fire Lord. "She is too powerful for us to reach, she refuses the food we bring her and the ground shakes and rumbles at all hours of the day and night. It cannot be felt by our neighbors, we have already asked and the estate is far enough removed from the others to contain it, but we are afraid for her life! Please, great Fire Lord, we do not know to whom else we can turn!"
Normally, Zuko would have dispatched a messenger to Aang and Katara before putting the matter out of mind for a few days and seeing how things turned out. However, his retainers had been especially annoying that day and with the migraine brewing behind his eyes from keeping his military officers busy with small work and his noblemen from killing each other with no war to channel their tempers into he would take almost any excuse to escape. Immediately he ordered a small guard for himself and went to the estate himself, assuring the nervous steward along the way that he would not strip the Lady Toph of her lands, she was too useful to him, and he was sure there was a reasonable explanation for it all.
Once at the estate he ordered his guards to remain out front regardless of what they heard or saw, and after telling the house workers and gardeners to remain out of his way, he approached the far end of the gardens where a stone dome could be seen in the distance. The only visible entrance was a hole at the top, and the ground rumbled uneasily under his feet as the sound of groaning and grinding stone could be heard in the distance. Removing his heavy outer robes, he smiled as he prepared himself for what would likely become a battle. It wasn't difficult to leap to where the hole at the top was, he had carefully maintained his skills as a bender and physical prowess with a daily practice regime that left him feeling physically complete even if the mental and emotional part had not gone as planned.
The sound ceased when his feet touched the rim, an unusual sight greeting his eyes as the small figure below turned towards him. Her hair was free from its usual bun with the headband nowhere to be seen; he was surprised how much of it there was as it reached past her waist and hung around her in heavy waves. Her clothes were dirtier than normal, and the only clean surface on her skin being the pale tracts that ran from her eyes to her chin. Her lips were dry and cracked, and something about the way her hands shook slightly and back was not quite as straight as normal testified to just how tired she was.
"What do you want, princess?" she rasped, her voice as tired and rough as the rest of her. "Why have you come?"
"Your steward is worried," he said as he began to walk around the outer rim of the hole. "He came for me."
"Then you came for nothing." She sent a warning spike of earth at him that he easily avoided. "Leave."
"I don't think I can," he replied in a musing tone as he dropped to the earth below, knowing she could sense where he was as long as he was touching something. He couldn't float like Aang with his glider, so hiding his whereabouts was nearly impossible and therefore a futile effort. "You see, you're upsetting your retainers, and this was my favored uncle's garden. I would hate to see you make a mess of it."
"I haven't made a mess of anything!" she snapped back, throwing her hands out to indicate the dome. "Contained, see? They'll have to replant some grass, that's it."
"So you do intend to come out eventually from your pout-fest?" he asked lightly as he pretended to examine his fingernails, knowing the movement wouldn't be lost on her as he slowly paced around her in a circle.
"Like you're one to talk," she growled, stomping a foot to unsettle the ground beneath his feet. He rode with it, nearly stumbling but able to coolly resume his stance once it was finished. "I at least have had the decency not to take my bad mood out on others around me unless they try and intrude on my space. You'd lash out at anything that moved when you got into one of your temper-tantrums."
"I'm not intruding, I'm interceding on behalf of your workers," he replied with a hint of pride. "After all, it is the Fire Lord's job to protect his people. They're worried you'll sink the whole mansion the way the ground is rumbling under their feet."
"I have more control than that," she snarled as she unleashed a small barrage of boulders at him. "Leave! You came, we spoke, and I will come when I am ready. So leave!"
"No." He dodged a few of the boulders and broke through the last one, his flames held at ready as his smile grew into a smirk. "I'm afraid you leave me no choice. I'll have to beat you until you submit."
Her snarl grew into a smirk as well. "Like hell."
His initial attack was easily rebuffed, but he expected that, and calmly let the slab of rock she chucked at him pass him by before coming in for a second strike. He knew better than to try and stay close range with her for long, the key to fighting her unique style was to keep moving. It gave her more clues as to what he might be planning next, but it also meant she had to guess where he would move next if she wanted to try and hit him. Staying in one spot for too long was to hand her a victory without exception.
The blows went back and forth, slowly gaining intensity and power as they exerted more of themselves to defeat the other. There were close calls, he almost over came her guard of stone once or twice, but she always managed to pull away just at the last minute and once or twice the boulder or slab or spike managed to clip the edge of his person. Blood ran freely from the cut along one of his arms. Sometimes she would taunt him, sometimes he would respond, but mostly only the sound of her rock and the hiss of his flame could be heard.
Her movements began to slow, though, she hadn't eaten in three days if her steward could be believed, probably had drank nothing as well and who knows how much sleep she had allowed herself. Taking every chance that presented itself to him, he knew he was flagging as well, but perhaps there could be just enough…
He flew through the air with the crackle of the flame in his hands, barely halting himself in time as she summoned a pillar angled at his gut from her feet. They paused there, the flame just inches away from her chest and the pillar barely touching his stomach.
"Truce?" he asked, chest heaving slightly though he retained his stance until she stumbled back, sitting down on the ground tiredly.
"Truce," she agreed and he let the flame go, the pillar sinking back into the ground along with the dome itself leaving only a flat barren space free of the marks of their battle.
"You're exhausted," he said as he pulled her to her feet and pushed her towards the house, ignoring her remarks that she wasn't a helpless chick and could find her own way as he guided her along. The Fire Lord's mood was unusually high when the others greeted them at the back of the mansion; Toph growling at him and him only laughing in reply as they dragged her off for a proper bath and a change of clothes. He offered to stay awhile longer when the steward wondered how much trouble they would be in for disobeying her orders to take the brunt of her ire. Of course, her people quickly accepted and a proper meal prepared that was laid out for him in the formal dining hall she had received him in the one time before.
When Toph finally rejoined Zuko in that same hall, the Fire Lord already halfway through his meal and decidedly unrepentant about that fact, she was wearing the same dress she had worn to the peace conference, freshly cleaned and pressed with her hair up in its usual bun but with a different headband in place. One he recognized as a gift from his uncle years before. Deciding not to comment on any of it, he waited for her to make the first move and continued to eat in silence.
"You told them to make this, didn't you?" she asked once she had tasted the first dish, a spicy beef with sautéed vegetables that he loved. Iroh had always had it on the table when he visited.
"You weren't there to order the food yourself," he replied as he drank more of his favorite wine from his uncle's stores. "So, care to share why you decided to throw a three-day fit in your backyard?"
"Not particularly," she replied, her lips curling in a sly manner. "I overheard some of your guards talking; they seemed to think you were relieved to leave the palace for awhile. Care to share why?"
"Not really," he replied with a snort. "Equal trade?"
"My retainers are trying to marry be off to the highest bidder so I can get about the business of having heirs before I die."
"My father has had another child with his new wife, a healthy boy. Now that they have someone to control again I've been officially disowned and told never to come home again."
Both blinked, digesting the news they had received quietly before Zuko spoke again. "I wasn't aware that you still had your family."
"Honestly, I never had them," she snorted into her drink. "They never accepted that their poor, crippled daughter could be a powerful Earth bending Master. I ran away, they assumed Aang kidnapped me, sent men after us to capture us, and after I returned when the war was over only allowed me on their grounds to try and capture me again. Since then, visits have been…awkward to say the least. My mother died not long after the war ended, father got remarried two years ago…I've known this day was coming for a long time." She suddenly lifted her head. "Wait, who's the highest bidder?"
"Currently, one of the Generals, a very powerful Fire bender with a daughter just a little younger than me," he sighed as he put his chin in his hand. "She's as dull as they come with very flat features, but if you're only looking at her ability to bear and raise children her family has a history of large broods. The oldest of ten, she comes with the skills necessary to watch over children."
"Anyone else?" she asked, somewhat curious as that would once have been her fate, to marry well for the benefit of her family, had she stayed behind that fateful day. "I would think marrying someone not of the Fire Nation would be a good choice; the other Nations might trust you sooner if you were allied to someone they did trust."
"Yes, but who's going to trust their daughter to me in the first place?" he pointed out grumpily. "Either they're the scum at the bottom of the bucket, which means no one trusts them either and it's a wasted effort, or I'm getting a castoff daughter that no one else will marry because they're an embarrassment to the family or something is horribly wrong with them." He absently refilled his goblet of wine with a shrug. "Wait another four or five years and maybe that would be an actual option, but I get the feeling if I wait that long they'll drag me to the altar bound and gagged just to get it over with."
"Can they do that to the Fire Lord?" mused Toph as she munched on some noodles with her favorite pork and vegetables mixed in. "I thought you were, you know, in charge."
"Yeah, well…" He shrugged again, applying himself to a lobster dish with a spicy butter sauce on the side. "I'll probably find something to distract them for a few weeks before they dog me like this again."
"You could choose someone just to piss them all off," she said as she leaned against a column of stone she called up behind herself. "You know, no title, no money, some commoner that has the brains to stand up for herself."
"Tempting," he admitted lightly. "But unlikely."
It wasn't long before one of the Fire Lord's guards came in; telling his master a messenger had come from the palace where he was needed immediately.
"Try not to scare your people like that again," he said on his way out the door, surprised when Toph actually got up to show him the way. "As refreshing as the fight was, this is quite a ways to go just for a sparring match."
"Try not to let them rope you into marrying some bimbo, she won't last a second at those meetings if she hasn't got a brain," she replied smartly, smirking as his mounted his ride. "Until next time, princess."
He just rolled his eyes and galloped away with his escort in tow.
That likely would have been the end of it, and things falling back into their normal pace, if a letter hadn't arrived a short while later declaring Aang and Katara were coming for their official visit a few months ahead of schedule due to some minor changes. They would be traveling by Appa, of course, and while they wanted to stay at least one night with Toph the rest of their time needed to be spent at the palace being diplomatic in attempts to establish even better relations with their neighbor the Fire Nation. Zuko, knowing the pair would want to spend as much time as possible with their friend, invited Toph along with the young couple and child to stay at his palace during their visit.
Toph still hadn't decided if she would actually come or not when Appa descended in her courtyard, Aang leaping from the flying bison's back to sweep the Earth Master into a quick hug.
"Put me down!" she cried when she found herself hovering in the air with him, only relaxing when her feet were firmly planted on the stones below once more. "Gees…you know how much I hate that!"
"That's why I always do it," he replied laughingly as he leapt back up to help Katara and Gyo as they called him from Appa's back. Toph genuinely smiled as Katara hugged her as well, her brows suddenly rising as her hands wandered back to the Water bender's expanded middle. "Wait…another one?!"
"That's why we came early," Katara explained with a hint of embarrassment as the two year old Gyo clung to her leg and stared up at the woman he vaguely remembered from before. "I'll be too far along by then to comfortably travel, and Aang wants the birth to be at the Easter Air Temple like Gyo's."
"Momma?" the little boy asked as Toph just shook her head slowly, unable to quite comprehend the fact that her friends were already on their second child. "Is that…?"
"This is Aunt Toph," she replied quickly, Toph crouching down so her face was even with the small child's. Granted, she couldn't actually see him, but she could tell he was less intimidated when she was on his level.
"The Earth bender," he breathed, eyes growing round as Toph brought up a pillar of stone and dropped it again with a smile.
"That's me," she replied. "I'm surprised you remember me."
"Daddy tells lots of stories about you," he whispered as he continued to cling to his mother's leg. "He said you see with your feet! Is that true?"
Between the explanation of how her Earth bending skills gave her the power to see and how the journey to her home at been for the trio (plus Appa) the boy soon forgot his shyness and was running through the mansion and gardens like he'd been there forever with Toph's blessing to do almost anything he liked. The evening was spent around the table in Toph's personal wing, eating and drinking as they spoke and reminisced about old times.
"I'm surprised you haven't tried to break away from this job yet," admitted Aang as he cradled the sleeping Gyo in his lap and munched on the fried dough balls Toph had ordered just for him. "You always hated constrictions."
"I travel, usually, in between jobs," she replied with a shrug. "It's not so bad."
Night passed quickly into day, though, and before the sun had reached its noon peak the four of them were descending on Appa's back into the courtyard of the palace with a legion of Fire benders and the Fire Lord himself to greet them. If Zuko was surprised Toph had decided to come after all, he didn't show it and after a polite but sincere greeting all around personally escorted them to the rooms they would have during their stay.
Aang and Katara were given their own suite with one room dedicated entirely for their child. Toph was given the room across from them, and even if it was noticeably smaller it led directly into the main gardens. Somehow, the Fire Lord had a feeling she would find that more important that the size of the space.
Dinner was unusually private, held on a small veranda outside with a pleasant evening breeze cooling the day's heat rather than in the formal dining hall that stretched forever in either direction. The top General and the highest Minister of political affairs were present, but the air was unusually informal as they sat together at the table. The men, of course, had a great interest in Aang and Katara's recent travels, but the Minister would occasionally glance curiously in Toph's direction as the evening drew on. Her Earth bending skills were famous, of course, but little else was commonly known about the young woman except she had been a favored companion of the late Iroh, and as a result had inherited his minor estates and title in the Fire Nation. Obviously she wasn't too uncommon a sight, considering she was there at least once a month with the trade licensure work, but there was much that went unexplained.
Such as how she claimed no title other that Earth Master, and yet could converse and dine with the grace of a noble lady. There was a marked difference in how she treated Katara, Aang, the baby and even Zuko. They were familiar, and almost like family it seemed. But she seemed to almost habitually fall into a well-born cadence whenever asked something by the Minister or General.
"I'm surprised you do not dine with us more often, Lady Toph, considering how often your work requires you to come to the palace," commented the Minister, probing another mystery cautiously. "I would think a meal is the least the Fire Nation can give you in exchange for your services."
"I am not fond of cities," she replied shortly, saving Zuko from a potentially embarrassing moment by adding, "Your Fire Lord is aware of my schedule. I rarely have time for such pleasantries."
"The ladies have assembled, my lord," a servant murmured as he approached the table, Zuko making a face as he rose with a sigh.
"It seems other duties require my presence elsewhere," he muttered as he straightened out his robes, the Minister rising as well. "Please, stay and enjoy the meal. I should return before long."
"What ladies?" asked Aang as he left, looking at the General who was chuckling quietly to himself.
"The ministers have decided it's time the Fire Lord found himself a suitable match," he explained as he poured himself some more to drink. "Many fine women have been summoned from around the Fire Nation, all of them of suitable rank and age for the young Master."
"He had the final say, of course," Katara put in quickly. "Right?"
"For the most part, yes, though he has to find one he actually likes before they can get to the business of negotiations," the man replied carefully. "It has been a…difficult search."
"Zuko's not an easy guy to understand, he probably wants someone who can stand up to him without being an embarrassment to the throne," Aang reasoned wisely, glancing at Katara with a smile. "It'll take a special woman, that's for sure."
The Fire Lord, true to his word, was back by the time dessert had been served with a fuming Minister following in his wake.
"They cannot all be unsuitable, my lord!" the poor man argued in vain, his Master ignoring him as he took his seat.
"I hope you have had a pleasant time in my absence," he said, giving the Minister a warning look before the man fell silent and took his seat as well. Conversation quickly picked back up, but time has a tendency to pass quickly when in the presence of good company so night came and after it morning as it generally has a tendency to do.
Toph had taken breakfast in her rooms, Katara and Aang scheduled for a conference with some of the richest men in the Fire Nation for that morning and the Earth bender less than interested in the proceedings. As a result, a napping Gyo was strapped to her back and taken with her as she explored the gardens that surrounded the vast palace. No one dared challenge her regardless of where she went, so when she found a small pond with several turtleducks quacking about in it she settled under a tree nearby to enjoy communing with the peace she had found there.
The child was nestled quietly in her lap when she heard several footsteps come her way, the sound of nervous laughter flowing on the breeze with the quiet voices of several young women following. She quickly gathered they were all highborn, well-dressed and probably here for something important, but decided to leave it alone until they cautiously approached her.
"Excuse me," said the boldest of the group, her voice sharp and disdainful as she stood beside the resting bender. "But this garden is for those waiting to meet the Fire Lord only. Surely you are not going to present yourself to him dressed like that with a child in your arms."
"I have no need to present myself to him," Toph replied as she made the ground raise just enough to cause the pretty thing to stumble. "I am an honored guest here. Who are you?"
The young woman's chin raised haughtily, her mouth opening to reply when one of the other's gasped in recognition. "You are the friend of the Avatar!"
"Friend of the Avatar?"
"The blind Earth-bender!"
"Can you see with your feet like the stories say?"
"Did you really defeat the entire Earth Kingdom army of Ba Sing Sei just to speak with the King?"
"Is it true that you call the Fire Lord disrespectful names to your face and never are punished?"
"Can you really bend metal?"
"Uh, yes, sort of, definitely, and yes," she replied, pointing at the girls that each question responded to. "So, you all are here to meet Zuko."
"He will choose the best woman to be his bride," the haughty one broke in quickly. "Which will be me, of course. He cannot ignore my beautiful looks, and I have the strength of mind and heart to reign beside him as Fire Lady."
"No, you just have an ego the size of the throne room," Toph shot back dryly. "Unfortunately for you, being arrogant isn't a sign of royalty; it's a sign of narrow-minded stupidity. If he does pick you, I'll personally beat him into the ground until he regains his common sense."
"I do not have to take this from a common peasant," the woman fumed, stamping her foot before stalking away. "I shall report your insubordination to the Fire Lord, and he will take my side indubitably!"
"I wouldn't be so sure about that…"
"To be honest," another spoke up quietly while the rest giggled at the retreating back of the snobbish woman. "I…am afraid to meet the Fire Lord. I have heard is a hard, difficult man."
"He's crabby, and given to moody fits, but it's not so hard to get him out of them," Toph replied with a light shrug, shifting when Gyo moved in his sleep (boy was this kid a hard sleeper). "I like to give him a hard time about pouting, but really he's not a bad guy. His uncle was an incredible man, and he learned a lot from him."
"I have never seen his face, they say his scar gives him a fierce look," a different one said slowly. "Is that true, Lady Toph?"
"Just Toph, I only let the fuss-pots use the Lady part," she replied with a quick smile. "About his face, I don't actually know, I'm blind, remember?"
"But surely someone has told you…?"
Toph shook her head slowly. "I'm not that interested in what people look like," she explained as they carefully sat around her in the soft grass. "I guess you could say I'm the impartial person in the world, because out beauty is something I will never use to judge them by."
"I have seen his face," admitted one of the others. "The scar is…it is not scary, but neither is it entirely pleasant. He would be incredibly handsome without it, but I believe it also gives his face character that makes him who he is."
"He has led a hard life, his physical features should reflect that," reasoned Toph lightly.
"There, she's right there!"
Everyone looked up to see the young woman from earlier with the head Minister at her side. When he realized who the complaint was lodged against, his face hardened and one hand quickly grabbed the arm of the protesting young woman and led her forcibly from the grounds.
"Anyone who cannot accept the friends of the Avatar who has reestablished the balance between the Nations is not welcome here," he announced loud enough for the rest to hear. The women with her giggled as Toph just basked in her victory.
"Good luck," said Toph when a bell rang a short while later, all of the ladies filing away a short while later. Some thanked her and all said goodbye as they quickly filed away. They were sweet, even pleasant at times, but she somehow knew none of them were to be picked.
Gyo picked that moment to wake up and complain about being hungry, so she set him down to walk along side her and the two went to raid the kitchen before spending the rest of the day playing in the gardens with the few toys he'd brought and whatever else they could find to amuse themselves. Dinner was once again a private, and informal affair with everyone lounging this time at a low table in the largest room of his personal suite with an unusually simple but delicious meal set before them.
"The fancy dinners with several guests will not begin for a few more days," the Fire Lord explained as his General and Minister joined them once again, along with one of the men Aang had met earlier that day. A widower with no children, his estates would be passed back to the Fire Lord after his death and he didn't seem to mind in the least. He had a dry sense of humor that Toph especially found amusing, so he was quickly welcomed into their circle.
They got into the topic of family resemblances when the visitor said the Fire Lord shared his uncle's smile. Gyo, of course, was asleep in Katara's arms and was immediately put under inspection as to which parent he favored. The discussion went back and forth until Katara asked Toph, "What do you think?"
Toph ran a hand over the babe's face as she was sitting beside her friend, pausing before motioning to Katara to lean closer and did the same to her. Chewing on one lip thoughtfully, she then motioned to Aang who quickly complied and let her do the same to him. "He has Aang's ears," she decided thoughtfully after a moment of silence. "Definitely Katara's chin. The nose isn't either of you, but the shape overall seems to favor the mom more than the dad. Either way, he's still a beautiful boy."
Zuko had watched the proceedings in surprise as the visitor agreed with her whole heartedly, Aang and Katara beaming with pleasure as the General and Minister observed from their seats. For some reason, the Fire Lord couldn't help feeling a little left out. The action was familiar to Toph and the others; she had done it before and more than once, so why had she never 'seen' him? Sure, they weren't as close as the others, but he still liked to think himself as part of their group.
The next few days disappeared in a flurry of activity, Toph ranging between politely declining to come along in favor of spending time with Gyo to actually participating in some of the events. A routine had developed for the most part, and the part of that routine was after they had broken for the night Zuko would go off with his General and Minister to wrap up anything he hadn't dealt with earlier. The others would retire to their quarters, and while this meant bedtime for Gyo and alone time for Katara and Aang, Toph was rarely ready to sleep at this point so she would enter the gardens through her bedroom access and find a good corner to meditate in until she was ready to sleep.
At the end of the first week that routine was unbroken until Toph decided to meditate beside the turtleduck pond she found so peaceful and just before she was going to get up and leave a fuming Zuko came storming along the pathway beside it muttering curses under his breath.
"Rough time, princess?" she called as caustically as usual, grinning when he almost growled aloud at her. "If you're going to pout, could you do it quietly somewhere else? I was trying to meditate here."
"My apologies, I didn't mean to disturb your rest in my home," he snapped back, towering over her as his hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically.
"Apology accepted, now go away."
"It must be nice," he snarled, voice grating loudly. "No responsibilities, no cares or worries…how could you understand the pressures of ruling a Nation?!"
"I never claimed to," she retorted darkly. "Why are you trying to pick a fight, Zuko?"
"Nobody understands, I do not have time to waste looking at pretty faces when I should be looking to my people's needs!" he yelled, letting a blast of flame loose in the sky where it dissipated harmlessly. "It is absolutely ridiculous!"
"Ah, so that's what this is about, the women that keep swarming the palace like flies around rotten fruit," she commented, smirking slightly. "What are none of them good enough for you?"
"I will not pick someone randomly for their looks or the family they come from," he replied quickly. "The Fire Lady is not just an important position; it is someone I must keep beside me for life. It is a decision that cannot be made instantly after a five minute meeting; it is something that takes time, time I do not have right now!"
She listened as he ranted, waiting for him to stop and flop beside her on the ground before she spoke. "I take it your Ministers do not agree."
"No, they do not." Silence feel between them again, but this time it was he who broke it after awhile. "Toph?"
"Who else have you…'seen'?"
"Several people," she replied with a hint of surprise. "Aang and Katara, obviously, Gyo, Yuki, Sokka, several of the tribesmen at the South Pole (they got a kick out of me guessing who is related to whom) and others I've met traveling around."
"Did you know what my uncle looked like?"
"Yes, I did." Toph's smile grew. "He liked to try and trick me by shaving parts of his beard, holding a mask up, or dressing the servants like him and pretending they were he. I could always tell, though, no man his size ever walked quite like him."
"People say I have his smile." Zuko's hands went to his face. "But I am not sure that they are right. His smile was so kind."
"Would you like to know?" she offered unthinkingly, holding out a hand. He sat up and nodded even if she couldn't see the movement, settling himself so his face was even with hers and guiding the hand to it. "Hm…" He smiled weakly as she traced the line of his jaw to his chin, following it up to his lower lip and following the curve to the edge of his lips. Surprised at how smooth and gentle she was despite the rough calluses that covered her hand, the smile became genuine as one lit up her face. "Yes, you have his smile."
Her hand started to withdraw, but he caught it gently, keeping it cupped against his cheek.
"What are you doing, princess?" she asked immediately, and he could have sword he heard a hint of nervousness in her voice. "Zuko…!"
"I want to know something," he replied breathlessly as he guided her hand up to the bottom edge of his scar. "This…they always stare…"
"Your scar," she murmured, bringing her other hand up as well as her fingertips followed the edge of it over his cheekbone, all the way to the edge of his ear. Up to his hairline she traced, finally coming over his brow, down the side of his nose and back to the edge of his eye. Her voice was one of wonder, but it held none of the revulsion or pity he expected to find there. Instead, it suddenly reflected a hint of curiosity as she carefully ran finger pads over the thickened and warped skin, realizing why she was able to catch him off guard more on his left as she noted the thickened eyelid with its limited mobility. One hand went to the undamaged side of his face, comparing the two halves briefly before she abruptly withdrew. "It is…larger than I expected," she said as she briefly rubbed her hands together, what looked like a soft blush appearing on her cheeks.
"Oh." The two sat there awkwardly for a moment before Toph rose to her feet, turning towards him slightly though her hair fell in a way that it obscured most of her face.
"I do not understand why they stare," she said quickly, the words flowing from her mouth in a rush. "Your scar is not ugly; it is a testament to your strength, just as your smile is a testament to your kindness. Goodnight."
The Earth Master was gone before he could reply, but her words certainly gave him something to dwell on. If he was a bit quiet with a more ready smile the next day, no one seemed to connect it when the fact that Toph was very quiet period and kept away from him the next few days. Their next encounter would be on the sparring court, the nobles lined up to see a display of her powers with Aang and Katara also participating, so by the time that was finished one could say they were all on equal footing again and she teased him later for getting beat by two girls. He replied it was good for blowing off steam about the other women, and she said she would be willing to help him blow of steam anytime if it involved getting to taunt him and grind his face into the ground.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long for Katara and Aang had to take their leave, dropping Toph off at her home and spending one final evening there before they took to the skies again, a few more stops on the list before going to the South Pole for Katara's second birth. Though she had certainly meant it, she was surprised when Zuko showed up a week later in a foul mood over the marriage process and demanded a match. She gave it to him, and of course she won because he was more focused on his anger than the fight itself, but by the time he was done he was able to face his Ministers again without frying them where they stood.
This new addition to their routine changed things slightly, but Toph was still in the Fire Nation no more than a week out of every month so Zuko was surprised when she showed up at the palace bearing another invitation between her usual visits to another peace conference.
Of course, plans were immediately made to go and with the same island as previously used being their destination it wasn't long before everyone was gathered there together again. It is amazing what over two years can do for people. The Fire Nation was more welcome this time, and managed to clean some of the filth from its name as the trade licensure had worked beautifully since its implementation. The merchants were too grateful for the rare ability to trade without having half their goods damaged in the process to do anything that would have it revoked and the heads of the other Nations as a result were willing to look upon the Fire Nation with a little more favor.
A few of Zuko's requests were considered this time, he could finally start scouting Fire Benders to train from the colonies that had transplanted themselves around the other Nations and train them properly, but he swore it would only be enough to have them master the basics so they wouldn't hurt themselves. If they wanted to learn more, they had to join the army of the Fire Nation. Granted, that meant the army might suddenly surge in numbers, but the Nations would rather have trained fire benders out of their lands and under the watchful eye of the Fire Lord where they belonged. This also might encourage some of the colonies to move back to their place of origin.
His final request was more of a statement than a request, but it obviously made several of the other members were nervous. The army was growing restless, so he was going to split it up into three sections and rotate them out every year or so. One third would be committed to just rooting out the defecting factions had he had been struggling with since he'd taken the throne. He swore to send word ahead if the battles led him to waters that were not his own, but that didn't seem to placate the others in the least.
The meeting broke without a decision being reached, and as the frustrated Fire Lord paced the gardens he invariably found Toph there enjoying the afternoon sun.
"You're upset from the meeting," she said as he sat down beside her. "I hope you're not looking for a shoulder to cry on, cupcake."
"No, I just don't understand why they don't see it's so important that I crush the resistance now by mobilizing my armies before they get any stronger."
"They do, it's just the thought of the Fire Nation army being mobilized that scares them," she replied with a slight shrug. "You might be able to get their approval if you led that third yourself, but that leaves the capital unguarded except for whatever General you leave behind and it would have to be someone they know won't betray you…"
Zuko suddenly sat up as if he thought of something. "You know, Toph….all of the other leaders trust you."
"Yeah, so?" She suddenly frowned. "No, Zuko, I will not be a General in your army."
"I couldn't make you one if I wanted to," he replied quickly. "But I can adopt you as a member of the royal family."
"What like…a sister?"
The Fire Lord hesitated, looking away with a hint of embarrassment. "Um, more like my daughter…I can't adopt a female of equal rank to my late sister Azula without angering several of the priests in my palace."
"Hell no!" Toph leapt to her feet, pointing at him angrily. "There is no way I'm giving you that kind of power and authority over me, thank you very much! One father was more than enough for me in this lifetime."
"Well, it's either that or becoming my wife…!"
A scornful laugh, a snarl of contempt, something that showed how little regard she actually showed for him was what he was expecting. Her freezing like a trapped animal with an indescribable mix of emotions crossing her face certainly wasn't. The awkward silence stretched between them, the Earth Master finally breaking the silence with a low voice.
"Let's assume this conversation never happened."
He wasn't given a chance to reply as she turned and ran as fast as she could back inside, disappearing around a bend before he could move.
"…what the hell?!"
The Avatar found him later that evening, grumbling to himself about how crazy and stupid girls were as he paced back and forth along the same spot of garden path. "So," said Aang quickly. "I'm gonna hope what I heard wasn't true."
"What did you hear?" the Fire Lord replied flatly, facing him with a look that said he wasn't in the mood of idle chit chat.
"That you proposed to Toph."
"Who the hellfires told you that?!" Zuko yelled back, his face growing red as flames appeared on his hands and he slammed them together to let them dissipate harmlessly. "Damn…"
"Well, whatever you did, Toph's pretty mad, and Katara can't even get her to talk about it, although I'm glad to hear Bumi was just pulling my leg," Aang went on carefully. "Except the occasional mutter about pigheaded idiots who think they know everything. Right now she and some of the Earth bending guards are sparring…"
Zuko brushed past him, ignoring all questions as to where he was going as he removed his heavy outer finery and tossed it to one of his guards as he walked by. The sparring wasn't difficult to find, just walk until the tremors got stronger and then keep going in that direction. The latest match was just finishing up and Zuko watched Toph slam the poor guy against the wall he leapt towards her and struck with one flaming fist.
She blocked, as he knew she would, and faced him angrily.
"I'm your opponent now," he told her calmly, settling into his stance as Aang assured the others it was fine from the sidelines (he hoped).
There was no round of give and take as usual, she blasted him with everything she had right off the bat and he was hard pressed to block and dodge all of it as his Fire bending skills were put to the test. Still, he wasn't long in attacking back and matched her fervor blow for blow as the dust swirled and fire crackled between them. Time stretched on as they went back and forth, both beginning to become short of breath and their limbs dragged with fatigue as they tried to valiantly keep their former pace. Finally, they both paused, dirty and sweaty with very little left in them.
"Truce?" he asked as he sat down in the middle of the court, watching her tiredly just a few feet away. She could strike him then, he was completely open, but she just nodded, leaning over to put her hands on her knees tiredly.
"I'm sorry," he murmured so only she could hear. "For whatever I said to upset you." Her head jerked slightly, she wasn't smiling but he could tell he'd been forgiven.
"An incredible display of power, Fire Lord Zuko, I was unaware you still practiced your skills," commented Bumi with a grin from where he stood. "And of course, your mad genius skills are as sharp as ever, Toph."
"I try," was all she said before she gave the rest a short bow and left with Katara in tow.
"It is wise not to depend upon others for my own safety," Zuko said with a short bow, turning to go to his own rooms. "I trust no one will be offended if I am late for the evening meal."
"Please, as much as I would like to compare bending styles with you I believe a bath would greatly improve the conversation," Bumi replied with a light cackle, smacking the young man on the back affectionately before heading off for the dining hall. "Come, friends, another fine spread awaits us!"
Toph and Katara were noticeably absent from the meal, even when Zuko arrived halfway through it, but this was not entirely unusual for the Avatar's two children were both in difficult stages of their life and were often too fussy to join the adults at the table. He went walking through the gardens that night hoping to catch her, but it was a futile effort. If she was there, she sensed him long before he arrived and was hiding too well to be found.
He rose with the sun as always the next day and after dressing himself and finishing the other necessary toiletries he wandered into the dining hall where the usual graze-as-you-come spread was served. The first meeting wasn't until mid-morning, and some of the attendees did not rise until a little while before it. Surprised to find himself not alone, he sat across from the Water bender as she fed herself and the little boy beside her. He was getting bigger, almost three years old now with his hair long and shaggy around his ears.
"Good morning," she greeted him with a small smile, Gyo smiling shyly as well as he hungrily ate the food she put on his place.
"Good morning," he replied with a polite bow. "How are you this morning?"
"We are well," she said as she chose some more fruit from the platter. "Toph told me something interesting last night."
"Although I suppose it was more along the lines of asked," the Water bender went on, watching the Fire Lord carefully. "She wanted to know what it was about Aang that let me know he was the one for me."
"I naturally was curious as to why she wanted to know something like that, as far as I know she hasn't been seeing anyone. She said she was just wondering. You wouldn't know anything about it, would you?"
"No," he replied, looking honestly puzzled as his eyes met hers. "No one that I have heard of has been pursuing her or she has been pursuing."
The room began to fill with others and the conversation was cut short, the meetings resuming once again with the rest of the rulers. Zuko's plan to begin to move troops to crush the resistance in his homeland was met with less distrust than it had been the day before, and by the end of their time together he had reassured most of them that he could be trusted in this matter. It helped, of course, that Toph was used as a human lie detector to prove that his intentions were pure.
He was more than a little surprised when Toph asked for a ride back to the Fire Nation. Aang needed to go in the opposite direction, she explained, and the Earth Kings felt safe traveling back home with their own guards. Her presence wasn't necessary. Of course, the Fire Lord immediately complied, rearranging the rooms so she was next to his in the next best quarters the iron ship could provide. The first day out to sea he was even more surprised, though, to see her standing at the rail 'looking' back towards the port they had just left with a bag of some sorts on her back.
"What are you carrying?" he asked as he came up beside her, the ship's command in good hands unless something drastic occurred that required his personal attention. "I thought my men took all your belongings to your room."
"They did." She opened the bag, holding it for him to peer inside. All there was that he could see was several handfuls of rocks and dirt. "Katara carries water with her when she travels over the land. I carry land with me when I travel over the water."
"A wise choice for an Earth bender. Fire and Air, perhaps we are lucky in that our elements never leave us."
She had retired then, and he didn't see her again until the evening meal. Normally, he would eat alone, but he invited her to share his food in his quarters at the table he had there. She accepted, and though it was slightly awkward they ate together in a companionable silence. Each night it became the same, he would invite and she would come and they would eat but almost nothing would be said. The last night before they were to arrive he repeated the steps, the soldier who he sent returning with her a few moment's later with the spread waiting on the table.
"Please, sit," he said, indicating the seat even if she could not see before sitting himself. It wasn't until then that something occurred to him. Something his men had muttered as strange but hadn't really registered until right then. "Toph…?"
"How can you see where you're going on this ship? Earth benders can't bend metal."
She smiled, picking up one of her steel spoons and holding it between her hands. The metal twisted on itself, knotting several times before she dropped it back to the table. "That's what you think. My powers are limited, but it can still be done."
The Earth Master smiled her little smile and replied, "No matter how well it is forged, metal will always carry some of the earth with it. If you are strong enough, you can bend those impurities and with them, the metal."
"Incredible. So then you can see…"
"Using the vibrations of the impurities. It is fuzzier than when I am on the solid ground, but for now it suffices."
Sincerely curious, he asked how she had discovered such a trick, and she explained it to him without giving away much of the situation. He still wasn't sure how she had come to be in a metal box in the first place, or why the men would want to put her there, but she had escaped and that was what was important.
Something else sparked in his mind, and suddenly he asked, "Toph, what was it I said the other night that made you so angry?"
She stared back at him silently before replying, "Why?"
"Because I don't understand what I did," he replied a tad angrily. "You were fine one minute, the next I wasn't sure what was going on. I know it was silly to suggest that you would ever be married to me, but still…"
"You're an idiot," was all she said. "Your Uncle would agree with me too."
"Then explain it to me, because he's not here," he shot back. "Because I don't understand and apparently no one else does either because they haven't been giving me any clues."
"I shouldn't have to explain it!" she replied forcefully, her brows lowered in anger. "Damnit, Zuko, what do you think I am?!"
"Toph, a powerful Earth bender," he replied, feeling hopelessly lost as she rolled her eyes. "A friend of the Avatar's, my late Uncle's close friend, a bridge to the other nations…my friend…"
"But before all of that there is one thing that you keep missing!" she cried as she got to her feet. "I'm a girl, Zuko. Maybe I don't act like one, or dress like one all the time, but I am a girl!"
"That doesn't change anything!"
"No, it changes everything, damn you!" He stared at her shaking form, standing as well when she made no move to sit again. "Your uncle," she choked after a minute of silence. "He knew. He knew probably even before I did. Did you think I stayed for his memory's sake? He was my friend, but he knew if I didn't have a reason after his death I would turn around and never come back. So he gave me a home, a place to return to, and as a result a duty that would put us in contact at least once every year."
Zuko shook his head slightly, blinking as he rubbed a hand over his head. "Uncle knew what?! I don't understand, this doesn't…!"
"I helped you," she said as if talking to a child. "I put up with you when you were in bad moods, I gave up parts of my travels so your Nation could flourish, a Nation I don't even have a great love for, I fought with you, talked with you, shared with you…how much more do you need?!"
"But what is it-!!"
Zuko was stopped by a pair of lips on his; lips he never thought could taste so sweet or be so soft as his arms hung uselessly at his side and his brain came to a screeching halt. When it finally decided to start working again, the lips were gone, and so was their owner, leaving him standing alone in his room with a glazed look. Sitting back down, he pushed aside the plates of food with his appetite gone and a snarled knot of a problem on his hands. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
He wasn't surprised when the ship made port in the hours before dawn that a report came to him saying Toph had slipped away the moment the gang plank was lowered with thanks for his hospitality but business to attend elsewhere. He said it was fine and went about his preparations as though nothing had changed. Once at the palace he brushed his ministers aside, locked himself in his office for a whole day, and when he emerged he requested food, a bath and sleep in that order. As he handed several important papers to his ministers the next morning, he ordered his mount and was out of the palace before the realization of what the papers held had struck. The Fire Lord had made his choice! But who was it?
Toph was out in the gardens practicing her concentration skills by levitating in a circle four stones with each palm when she felt the riders approaching. She was mildly curious, but her staff had been given very strict instructions and she would be disturbed. That was, of course, until she heard heavy footsteps coming up behind her and decided she was not in the mood for this right now.
"It's a funny thing about being Fire Lord, no one dares lie to you," said Zuko as he stopped beside her, surprised she hadn't forcibly tried to chuck him out yet.
"Leave," she said flatly. "I will be there when you need me to be, I will not neglect my duty. So leave."
"I'm glad to hear that, but I still have one simple request of you. May I ask it?"
She finally turned towards him, her face cold and guarded. "What?"
"May I kiss you?"
Zuko didn't wait for a response, swooping down to capture the lips that had stayed at the back of his mind since his last encounter with them. One of her hands crept up to caress his scar as he pulled her close, pressing his body against hers as her other hand clutched at his back.
"I'm sorry," he whispered when he finally pulled away, breathing heavily though he refused to let her go. "I was such an idiot…you could've done that sooner, and saved us both a lot of trouble."
"I didn't know if it was the right thing to do," she admitted breathlessly with a small smile. "You never seemed to care."
"Neither did you."
"Then we're both idiots."
Her smile grew as she buried her head in his shoulder. "Truce."
Uncle Iroh would have enjoyed the ceremony a few months later; they served his favorite tea there in honor of the only man who knew them well enough to know they would one day need each other. To think it would all begin with a simple request.
My one contributions to the Toko shippers. I'm not particularly fond of this one couple actually, but I see it as a future possibility. Please review! I hope you enjoyed this at the very least. :)