Notes: This is my first toe-dip into the Avatar fic-writing community. There may be more, but right now, this is it. Since I don't ship anyone, I suspect any Avatar fic I do write'll end up being gen like this :) Also, in case it isn't clear, I adore Toph and Zuko.
Even though he'd been told there would be food soon, Zuko wasn't surprised when he emerged from the room that he'd been given to see the group dispersing. There were a few people he didn't recognise, but he saw them glance at him as they headed off in different directions around the Air Temple.
The Water Tribe girl wasn't around, which he was secretly grateful for, and her brother gave him a brief nod as he headed off with the kid in the chair with wheels and the Earthbending boy.
A pot, scraped empty of everything except the dregs, was sitting beside the remains of the cooking fire, and he grimaced as his stomach growled.
"Shoulda come for dinner." The Earthbending girl, Toph, was sprawled on her back in the late afternoon sunlight, head pillowed on her hands, blind eyes staring at nothing.
Zuko hesitated. "I didn't realise it was dinner already," he said, wondering again how she could tell so easily who and what was going on around her. He'd seen her bend, and knew it would be better to stay on her good side.
"Yeah, I figured," she said, then jerked her elbow towards a sack a few paces from her. "There's some fruit in there."
"Uh." Zuko hesitated again before reaching into the bag, taking a peach, watching her carefully. "Thanks."
"Hey, don't think this makes us friends," she warned, but she was grinning. "This just means you owe me again. And since Sokka's cooking tomorrow, I don't think it'd be a good idea starving you for two days."
He couldn't help but smile at that, which surprised him. "How're your feet doing, anyway?" he asked.
She lifted one leg straight up and wiggled her toes. "Could be worse," she said, "and I still have my hands. Kind of nice to get treated like a Princess and getting everything done for me as if I were completely helpless." She laughed suddenly, as if there was something funny about that.
Zuko looked around the deserted terrace. "Where is everybody?"
She pointed straight up with her foot. "Aang is trying to calm Katara down up there," she said, "and the others are exploring somewhere over that way." One hand waved absently. "The Duke's the only one who found the hidden passages so far. It's turned into a competition." She rolled her eyes. "Boys."
"Is that meant to include me too?" he said, cautious, hoping he wasn't using the wrong tone of voice again.
She turned her head in his direction. "Well, unless you're not a boy," she said cheerfully.
It should have been insulting, but from her, it wasn't.
"How did you… uh… end up with them anyway?"
Toph shrugged. "I was bored," she said, but she was smiling again. "Running away with a twinkle-toes kid with a flying bison seemed like a good idea at the time." She spread out her limbs in all directions and stretched. "Let me see the world."
She was waiting for him to state the obvious and gave him an approving grin when he didn't.
Sitting up, she flexed her toes. "You know, I wondered what would have happened if you run into us in Ba Sing Se," she said suddenly. "I mean, before your nutso sister showed up and you and Katara got captured."
"That wouldn't have been a good thing," Zuko replied, tossing the peach pit off the terrace and it bounced away into the canyon. "I wasn't… I didn't know the things I know now."
He wiped his hands on his shirt, thinking of Uncle Iroh again, wondering how he'd broken out, where he'd gone.
It was like she could read his mind, or maybe it was just a lucky guess when she asked, "What happened to your uncle?"
She nodded. "I met him before," she said. "You remember that time we found your sister in that town and she hurt him?" Zuko nodded, gritting his teeth. He knew he'd never forget how much that moment had terrified him. "I met him before. He gave me tea and some advice."
Zuko laughed quietly, sadly. "That sounds like Uncle Iroh," he said. "I just didn't realise how useful his advice was until it was too late."
"What!" She almost shrieked it and the emotion in her voice both surprised and pleased him. Someone else who knew how important Uncle Iroh was after all. "He's dead?"
"What?" Zuko exclaimed in alarm. "No! No, he's not dead!" It didn't bear thinking about. "He… after Ba Sing Se, after I… well… you know… he was put in jail back in the capital."
The girl's fist smacked the ground, spikes of rock stabbing up underneath him and making him scramble to his feet. "And you left him there?"
"No!" Zuko exclaimed indignantly. "I went to get him out! He should have been powerless during the eclipse, just like everyone else, but when I got there, he was gone."
Her grin returned suddenly. "Good," she said. "I like him."
"So do I," Zuko agreed. "Even if I want to stop him from ever mentioning tea again."
Toph laughed, wriggling her toes. "Want to go and see this place?" she inquired. "I mean, you'll have the advantage." She waved her hands expressively. "And I'll let you say you found all the secret passages by yourself."
"I don't know…"
"C'mon!" she said, hands on her hips. "Are you part of this group or not? You're going to have to put some effort into stupid contests of 'I'm so much smarter than you' if you want to impress anyone."
One side of his mouth tugged up. "Even though I am so much smarter?"
"Ha!" Toph snorted. "You wish!" She held up her hands to him. "C'mon. I need a ride!"
"Hey, you burned my feet," she said, jerking her fingers and sliding him closer on a block of rock, "you get to carry me around."
She smiled with mocking sweetness. "You signed up to join the good guys and do the hard work," she said. "No backing out now."
He tried to sound annoyed about it when he knelt and let her climb onto his back. "Anyone ever tell you you're pushy?"
"Anyone ever tell you you should try taking a bath once in a while?" she retorted. "You might be right about being one of the guys after all. All I'm getting is a nose-full of guy-smell back here."
"Funny," he said, unable to stop himself smiling. "I'm getting the same from you."
She dinged him across the head with one hand and laughed. "You're going to fit in here just fine," she informed him, arms around his shoulder and legs around his waist. She kicked with her heels firmly. "All right Sparky, yipyip!"
"I'm not a Sky Bison!" Strangely, though, Sparky sounded all right.
She leaned forward until her face was peering over his shoulder. "So what's the command for an ex Fire Nation Prince?" she inquired, grinning at him.
"For someone from the Fire Nation? I bet you don't even know what that means!"
"Try it," he challenged, wondering why it suddenly felt so easy to smile.
She snorted and tightened her grip on his shoulders. "Fine, Sparky. Please!"
With a laugh, he started to run, and on his back, Toph whooped gleefully as they headed into the Air Temple.