Synopsis: She didn't need to see to understand. Spoilers for Western Air temple.
The fire was burning low when Toph awoke. Stretching languidly, its dwindling heat soothed her as she listened for the push and pull of water bending. Katara's stirring of the cooking water told her it was nearly sunset. Nearly sunset and everyone was making their way towards the fire. Everyone but Zuko. Digging her hands a little deeper into the temple's ground told her he was nowhere inside.
So he was out there.
For the past two weeks it's been the same routine. Zuko would rise ridiculously early. Train Twinkle toes. Sugar Queen would be watching. She would always whisper something to him, and even though Toph couldn't hear her words, she knew that Zuko felt them. He would just stand there and take it. Then he would go to his room. Sometimes he would head over to the Pai Sho table, and Toph would go with him. She didn't play, but she would listen to him. He had a lotus tile, but he never placed it on the table. He would just sit there, rubbing the tile between his thumb and forefinger. He did however, always give her something to listen to.
Later on she would take a nap, which he had jokingly described as beauty sleep. She punched him so hard he had a bruise for the next four days.
Each and every time she woke up and joined the group for dinner, he wasn't there. She would wander around the temple after dinner, accompanied by Haru, Teo and the Duke. They would constantly chatter amongst themselves, while Toph listened for the fire bender. They would show her all these rooms and corridors they had discovered, but none of them held a banished prince. By the time she returned to the fire, he was already sitting there, eating his dinner cold.
By the eighth day, she found him. She circled his original camp carefully, before settling in a spot close enough to hear him moving about, but far enough to avoid a repeat of her first visit there. Leaning her back against a tree, she closed her eyes and just breathed. Slowly. In and out.
She became aware of the crackling of firewood first, practically feeling the wood splinter. She heard rustling, and with a tap of her heel, she could tell he was seated a few feet away from the fire. The way his body trembled against the rock he was laying against sent Toph vibrations that felt all too familiar. She left him alone that first night.
It wasn't until the fourth night, that she actually approached Zuko. For those first three nights she would just wait and listen, a skill she had more than perfected. He would sit by the fire, and she would pick on the same vibrations that made her curious that first night. He would whisper to himself, but even Toph couldn't hear his words. She kept thinking of different ways to join him near the fire. She could just barge into the camp like she owned it, her first choice of course. She quickly discarded the idea, knowing her finesse might not be appropriate for the situation. She could just chuck a rock, no, a pebble at his head. That would probably get his attention, just not in the good way. Sitting there, she mused over several ideas before settling on one.
With a flick of her wrist, the rock Zuko was leaning against abruptly moved. Away from him. She felt his heart skip in surprise and listened for the thud as his now, unsupported back, hit the ground. All was still for a moment, before he called out, "Yes Toph, you can come sit down by me…" With a satisfied smirk, she stood up and walked over.
As she came closer, she could tell he hadn't moved at all, still laying there in the dirt. Wriggling her toes, the earth underneath him rose, and he was rolled out of the way as the rock Toph had moved previously, shifted back into its original spot. She sat down and rolled him back over. They sat there, beside one another, facing the fire.
"I'm surprised I don't have more bruises to show from being around you so often." Zuko nudged her softly before relaxing against the rock.
"Really? You want some more?"
"I think I'm good for now…"
The earth bender snickered quietly as she planted her heels into the ground, and mimicked the fire bender by laying against the rock. She felt him lift his arm and heard the rustling of fabric.
He doesn't need to do that, it's not like I can see his face anyway…
"What do you think about when you come up here?"
He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. It was at that moment that Toph truly felt the heat of the fire they were resting in front of. Closing her eyes, she shifted closer to him, leaning her head on his shoulder. He stiffened slightly, making Toph wonder just how many people had ever gotten this close to the prince. He turned his face to her, and she could only assume he was looking down at her. It was her turn to stiffen when he lifted one of his hands from his stomach and reached for her. Before touching her, he paused, as if waiting for a pile of rocks to fall on top of him. When nothing happened, he gently pushed her bangs away from her closed eyes, before whispering as he turned towards the fire once more.
"My family. . ."
Family. Coming from him, that one word held more weight than any boulder Toph had handled.
"Like your Uncle?"
Another deep breath.
There it is again. That tremble.
"Mostly him, but my mother, and great grandfather as well. Even my cousin. . ."
She kept her eyes closed as she turned her face away from the cool rock and towards him. Settling onto her side, she nestled her cheek against his arm. She figured fire benders were hot to the touch, being that Sugar Queen's healing hands were ice cold. He wasn't hot though… he was warm.
"What about your father? He is the big bad Fire Lord after all.."
From what she heard through Sokka and Sugar Queen's arguments, an even Twinkle Toe's input on the subject, she expected anger. Maybe a few wild sparks from the fire. What she didn't expect was such a quick, even response.
"You're right. He is just that, a Fire Lord."
The trembling was stronger. She could actually feel it, leaning on him… the way his arms shook slightly and the way his chest would rise and fall with the smallest of shudders. The sound of his breath as he exhaled was muffled, and she reached for his hand. Her fingers bumped into his arm faintly, and she traced her way to his hands, before gently covering them with one of her own.
"Out of all my thoughts, the people… what's important, what's happened…"
She felt the them tickle her hair first. She brought her face up, eyes now open. Another one fell, and she blinked as it struck her cheek, leaving a warm wetness behind.
"Every single one of them brings me to think of everything. That's what I'm thinking about. Everything…"
He turned his face away, trying to take his hand from hers. Her tiny rough hands wouldn't let go, grasping his tightly.
You don't have to hide them… I can't see remember?
He looked down at their hands, and intertwined his fingers with hers. He tilted his head towards hers imperceptibly, understanding
"While he….. he is nothing…"
She opened her eyes.
She would hold onto him as he repeated the word. His everything had become nothing in a moment. More than anything, his everything had always been… nothing.
Nothing matters. Earth bending. The war. Family. Friends. Everything is nothing without this.
"Nothing." They both whispered it to themselves, to each other. To them, nothing could mean losing everything, or finding everything. Nothing connected them. Everything connected them.
She sat up tentatively, leaving her hand in his, and placing her free hand on his shoulder. She never felt as desperate to see as she did right now. To look up into his face and be able to see him looking back. Taking a deep breath, she reached for his face, slowly, cautiously. While she was unaware, he watched her and when her fingers brushed against coarse wet skin of his cheek, he closed his eyes.
It had become dark out, not that it made any difference. It was always dark for her, and she wouldn't let that scare her as she closed her eyes and kissed him.
She wondered how much he would laugh at her, realizing she hadn't pressed her lips to his completely, slightly catching his cheek. She wondered what he looked like when he laughed. She wondered if she would regret giving her first real kiss to an unresponsive prince, as she went to pull herself away from him….
There it is… that tiny little change… I know that feeling…
She felt his lips curve into a smile as he shifted them to cover hers in a brief, soft kiss.
His hands never left hers, as he leaned back, resting his cheek against the top of her head. Toph smiled, listening to more than just their words, as they laid next to one another, murmuring softly. Afterwards, they made their way back to the temple, the fire in his palm leading the way. As they walked side by side, she couldn't help but wonder about what everything meant to her.
She wondered if they would all survive this war. And if they did, what would become of them, years from now? Would they all remain this close, or would they grow apart?
Understanding the silence that had fallen on her, Zuko reached out to her. As his hands found hers, all uncertainty was cast away.
Because in the end, their beginning was everything.
A/N: I had the hardest time trying to come up with a synopsis for this one. I was ready to just leave it blank…. This was a little idea that just wouldn't get out of my head. The last idea of 2007 anyways .