AN: This the prologue/first chapter of a Toph/Zuko set four years after the end of the second season of ATLA. Details about how everyone came to be in their present situation will be explained as the story progresses, so do not fear. So sit back, read and enjoy.
DETERMINATION WAS SOMETHING Toph always prided herself in possessing. It had gotten her through many difficult situations that she'd been faced with in her short life. And her determination came in many forms: determination to be strong, determination to continue to fight even when it seemed to be hopeless, and even determination in keeping her ideals of right and wrong unchanging and timeless.
Speaking of what was right and wrong, Toph firmly believed it was right to do whatever you could to help someone who needed and deserved your help. Which brought her to her dilemma she was in now: alone, in the Fire Nation, rushing off to save the ghost of a man she once knew and respected. Iroh.
She hadn't seen him in four years, but she knew essentially what he'd be: a man with many regrets and no joy. She was rushing to him to rectify that situation. He needed someone, anyone, to save him from this nightmare he'd lived for the past four years.
Ty Lee had told Toph everything once she'd comfortably settled with the resistance. She had confessed where Iroh was hidden, how sad and forlorn he'd become, and how she wished there was something she could have done for him.
Toph replied that Ty Lee had done something for him by telling Toph. Because Toph intended on rescuing Iroh and giving him something to live for. Something to fight for. The support he deserved, because of the support he'd given her and her friends four years ago.
Spirits, had it really been only four years? It seemed like an eternity ago…when she, Aang, Sokka, and Katara flew on a ten ton bison, had traveled the relatively unconquered world, had ambitions and hopes and goals…
Their ambitions, hopes, and goals were essentially the same as they had been four years ago, but with a sick twist added. The struggle for daily survival, the learned instinct to cower in hiding, the guerilla warfare that they hadn't needed before…it was a reality now. It was a bitter taste in her mouth, one that had lingered for too long.
Saving Iroh was something that could ease the sick dread of daily life. If she could manage to save him, it would give her…well, something. Some sort of happiness, some sort of…reason.
Katara had protested. Sokka had argued. Aang had begged. But she came here to the Fire Nation anyway. They didn't understand. Iroh didn't give them such words of comfort that he had given her four years ago. Iroh didn't make them tea, or sit with them, or talk wholeheartedly with them. She merely told them she had to do this, and she left. The proverbial dark of the night that she knew nothing of concealed her from Fire Nation troops. So she traveled when the world became quiet, and sought refuge in her beloved earth when the noise and life came forth with the sun.
When night had fallen once more, she approached the stronghold in which Iroh was imprisoned. She felt herself smirk, then unleashed her attack.
THE SUN ROSE and filtered obnoxiously into his bedchambers, rudely awakening him. He groaned and rolled over, burying his face beneath his multitudes of covers and pillows. The slender body beside him, also half conscious, sought refuge from the sun's blinding glare, emitting her own noises of displeasure.
He was rudely interrupted once more as the door to his bedchambers flung open and his sister's angry footsteps drummed against the floor of his room.
"Wake up Zuko!" she ordered him indignantly, wrenching the sheets off of the bed, exposing their nude bodies. He bit back his temper.
But not well enough. "Azula! Do you mind?"
"There's something called privacy!" his companion's voice hissed.
"There are other things that are more important, Mai." His sister's voice positively dripped with venom.
"And what would those be?" Zuko demanded, slinking out of bed to don a robe haphazardly. He was in agreement with Mai's sentiments at the present time.
"Oh, let's see…" Azula trailed off thoughtfully, tapping a crimson nail to her chin. "Perhaps it's that it's almost noon…or maybe that Uncle Iroh escaped from his prison this morning?" she suggested.
Zuko froze, and for the first time in four long years, sweet relief flooded through him. Uncle Iroh…
He hid his emotions carefully, having become a master at doing so over the years of dealing with Azula. "How?" he asked, turning to regard Azula.
She scowled darkly, her arms crossed. "An Earthbending girl, that brat Toph. She must have discovered his location from that traitor, Ty Lee."
Zuko arched a brow. "Oh?"
Mai scowled. "So, why does that give you permission to barge into our bedchambers?" she questioned crossly.
"Because Zu-Zu is going to go after them." Azula stated, glaring daggers at Mai.
"I don't see why you'd care. It's a little girl and an old man." Mai sniffed indignantly.
Azula shoot a flame at Mai, who dodged just enough to not be hurt by it. "Because that girl isn't so little anymore, and is a Master Earthbender that needs to captured and executed for her crimes against the Fire Nation. But not before she's tortured for all she knows about the Resistance." Azula sighed impatiently. "And Iroh must be imprisoned once more, since he is also a traitor."
Mai glared daggers at Azula. "Then send me as well, I'm bored enough as it is around here."
"No, I have another mission for you, Mai. Report to me once you…" her eyes flickered over Mai's nude form, "dress and I'll tell you the details." Azula directed her gaze to Zuko. "Go after them and bring them back, Zu-Zu." Her voice was full of mocking and malice and Zuko regretted, as he had many times before, for ever trusting in this wolfish woman he called sister. She turned and left as quickly as she had came, bringing her storm of darkness with her.
Zuko swore under his breath, for he was glad that Iroh had escaped and had no desire to bring him back to prison.
"Can you accomplish this mission?" Mai monotonous tone pulled him from his thoughts.
He frowned softly, gazing at his lover. "I can and I will." He told her vehemently. It was a blow to his esteem for Mai, his lover of the past four years, to doubt him.
She arched a brow and he resisted the urge to throttle her. She doubted him! She doubted his abilities!
"I see." He commented sourly. And with that, he chose to brush away the aggravation he felt towards Mai. To dwell on it would only further provoke him.
She leaned back against their plump pillows, her body cool and calm, and she said nothing. As per usual.
Zuko stepped to the bed, his heart aching from Mai's lack of emotional response. Show me something, anything Mai! Be emotional; beg me to save Iroh, anything! He silently pleaded to her. But, of course, she did not hear the pang in his breast.
Desperately, he knelt on the bed, covering her body with his own. She wrapped her arms loosely around his neck as he kissed her gently. He deepened the kiss, and her lips merely moved in time with his own instead of merging passionately.
His heart sank, but he continued, seeking solace in her arms and in the depths of her. The union was slow, cool, and calm, as it always was. Zuko longed for her to cry out in pleasure, longed for her to move with him heatedly, longed for her to tremble with passion. But, no. She moaned softly, tensing, and shuddered slightly as she peaked.
The sudden extreme tightness drew him over the brink, and he buried his face into her neck as waves of pleasure coursed through his body. Mai…he mentally called out to her, why can't you just react? Respond? Feel?
He lay there for a few moments, drunk on physical pleasure and emotional pain before she shifted beneath him. "I need to report to Azula now." She softly reminded him, her voice ever monotonous.
He rolled off of her, allowing her to rise and dress. He watched her lithe figure from the crook of the arm he threw over his face. Hn, she was so slim…always would be, he guessed. He couldn't imagine her any other way, not even her being round with child.
Children…he began to feel the tug of his proverbial biological clock every so often. A small child who he could teach, cherish, love. One who would mirror himself and look up at him with adoring eyes.
But Mai expressed no desire for children, nor could he imagine her being a mother. When he thought of mothers, he thought of his own warm, kind, caring affectionate mother. That, in his mind, was what a mother should be. That, he knew, was what Mai was not.
And, somehow, over the past four years of his careless, passionless sex with Mai, she hadn't gotten pregnant. He wondered vaguely if perhaps she, or he, were sterile. Or maybe the spirits were protecting him from what would be a huge mistake. He didn't know.
Mai left without even so much as a kiss goodbye and he snorted disgustedly. Just what the hell was wrong with her? With him? He rose and dressed hurriedly. In the heat of the summer, his clothing was light and airy. His armor was forged of a lighter but stronger steel designed specifically for Fire Nation summers. His cloak was also lightweight, and it swirled about his ankles.
Iroh…his thought turned away from his stingy lover and towards his loving uncle. In the past four years he thought of him constantly, and the guilt and intense love he felt for Iroh. Zuko's betrayal of him had caused him nothing but pain and grief. It had restored his proverbial honor, but had done nothing to making him happy.
His father, Ozai, had continued the war, barely giving Zuko a thought. Azula was in higher command than him, the ever so perfect prodigy, and Zuko was her lowly work dog. His days were consumed with demeaning tasks and conscienceless acts that he regretted once the moon rose in the night sky.
And Iroh. He always thought of him. How cold and lonely and miserable he must be in his prison. How he wanted to go to him, weep, and beg for forgiveness for his stupid actions.
Zuko would rather, in retrospect, have stayed a traitor to the Fire Nation and been by Iroh's side than where he was now. If he had…the word would perhaps be a different place. The Avatar may have prevailed, this war may have been over by now, and perhaps Zuko would have been happy.
Iroh would have been prouder of Zuko if he had lived in honest poverty than dishonest royalty. He knew had had shamed his Uncle with his follish actions of betrayal and reconciliation with Azula. The guilt alone made him sick, numb, and altogether useless…
It was no use to think of what may have been or the what ifs. Things were as they were now, and Zuko felt himself to be a prime time idiot for forsaking the only person who had ever loved him. And now Zuko had to track him down through the Earth Kingdom and retrieve him.
Zuko doubted himself, and laughed wryly. He had been enraged with Mai for doubting him when she had actually been right the entire time. Zuko truly doubted himself. Could he actually capture or kill this Earthbending girl for doing what he had longed for in the past four years? Could he grab his Uncle and drag him kicking and screaming back to the Fire Nation to be thrown into prison and possibly tortured once more? What if…
He immediately kept himself from thinking anything at all about letting them free. About going back to Azula and admitting defeat. It would be too easy and he would dishonor himself.
The recesses of his mind questioned him if he would truly be dishonored by doing the right thing. He argued back that it had happened once before, and that he couldn't allow it to happen again. How quickly would his sister and father turn on him if he came back empty handed? He wasn't sure if a heartbeat was quick enough of a time.
So Zuko willed himself to go and hunt down that bratty Earthbending girl and his still beloved Uncle.