So, yeah... update anyone? Please put down you pitchforks! I'm so busy I kinda stopped updating-school, work, and all that. Well, today I'm grounded. And so thank you to everyone and anyone who reviewed/read this. This is a special one for you:


Chapter 8: Night Talks

The tinkling of the fountain water was sweet and serene in Aang's ears, and as he looked around at the rest of his friends in the courtyard he felt even more conscious. The boy couldn't pinpoint the origin of the sudden feeling, except he wished that everyone could be as peaceful as he imagined himself to be. Even when Zuko and Toph weren't around to spread their raging rain clouds of angst, it was still the whole marriage thing that made everyone so deep and disturbed in thought.

"I think… " A voice began, and everyone cocked their heard towards the speaker. It was Sokka, staring at the sky and stroking his imaginary philosophical beard. He was laying on his back with Suki next to him, her head on his chest.

"What?" asked Katara.

"We're not making this any easier for them, huh?" he said. Aang suddenly bolted upright, a grin plastered on his face.

"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "I think by trying to sabotage Toph and Zuko we're actually hurting them! We should support them!" Katara sat upright as well, and Sokka cocked an eyebrow.

"I was talking about Appa and Momo," he said pointedly, making a motion towards the bison and the lemur. He had tied a carrot to Momo's tail, providing minutes worth of entertainment to those who cared to watch the lemur fly for it's life to avoid a hungry Appa.

"Oh.. Well, yeah. I think we should support them, and make it easier! That's what friends do, right?" Aang persisted. Katara looked thoughtful.

"Yeah, you're right… You're so right, Aang! We should! All this time we were making it harder for them, but what if it ended up working out? Zuko's uncle seems to think it could."

"All we need is an opportunity," Suki pitched in. They each became absorbed in their own thoughts, until another new voice piped in.

"There's going to be an opportunity soon," Ty Lee said suddenly, reminding them that she was still there. Then she said that she was sworn to secrecy, and she couldn't elaborate. They would have to wait and see.

__________________________________________

A clink resounded through the dining room as Toph stabbed her meat with vigor, causing the fork to plow through the meat and straight into the plate.

Hakoda's presence was a warning that he suspected something wild might occur, else he wouldn't have bothered sit on the side of the table that a few select counsel members decided to occupy. Sokka personally thought that they had made it clear the counsel was so not invited to breakfast any more.

"We have another day's announcement," General Gao said at last, with obvious pleasure. A collection of groans and sighs passed across the table, and Zuko-so preoccupied with keeping up his image as the serious Fire Lord-put down his fork and listened intently, as if this were an important business matter. Toph, however, went on eating, because she had a feeling she might lose her appetite soon.

General Gao resumed his announcements. "Because the wedding date is so rapidly approaching, we recommend the planning of an engagement party… " He paused for effect, and to examine the faces of his targets.

Ty Lee beamed purposefully at Aang with excitement glowing in her wide eyes, and the air bender caught the message instantly. He looked around to grin at the others, but they weren't looking at Aang, who discovered this golden opportunity that the girl hinted around earlier. Katara was watching Toph like a hawk, and Sokka and Suki took turns glaring daggers into General Gao's icy face.

"And I trust that there are no objections to this? We did previously discuss the way the trial system would work-the plans resume as normal unless we have a reason to stop them. Good, you are all great listeners. After the planning of the engagement party-"

-I've never actually proposed to her, how could they be thinking of an engagement party? Zuko realized inwardly with a pang.

-"we must begin to plan the wedding and make the arrangements-"

I think there's enough arrangement, thought Toph, annoyed.

"-which will include location, the guest list, etc. Soon after should be chose the 'honeymoon' location, or more traditionally called the palace of consummation-"

Suddenly Sokka leaped out of his seat, flushed with anger, and two seats away Toph began choking violently on something she had been eating when those words were spoken. Katara gave her father a horrified look and went to work pounding on Toph's back.

Sokka thrust a finger in the counsel's general direction.

"What?" he cried. "Oh, t-there will be no 'consummation'!" His face was tinged with red and accusatory. Hakoda sighed and considered leaving the room-because these rules where strictly fire nation and earth kingdom policy, and so different from the traditions of the water tribes! While Suki agreed roughly with her boyfriend, she was also surprised that he knew what the word meant.

"Of course there will be!" Gao retorted hotly, restraining himself from rising from his seat. "This doesn't involve you. It is imperative to fire nation tradition that the marriage be completed by consummation, we must be sure of it!"

Toph did not stop choking-her coughs were jagged and even deeper when the General spoke. Katara was afraid she would choke to death, and even Aang joined in, pounding on the girl's back.

If clenched fists and white knuckles weren't indicators of his heated embarrassment, Zuko was furious. Gao's hot demands and cocky stare licked his insides like a fiery whip-how dare he command Zuko to do such a thing, and in front of his friends and counsel! He stood up, his face a deep red and his voice unstable.

"I.. I will not consummate a thirteen year old!" Zuko said indignantly, nearly shouting at the general. Toph's coughs were worse and a hue of blue started to enter her smooth face. Finally, Katara was forced to water bend out whatever was blocking her throat.

"Zuko!" roared the general, getting to his feet and for a moment forgetting his title. ".. my Lord. By Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom standards, Lady Toph is of marrying age. Interestingly enough, you say this 'little girl' deserves praise enough for her heroic efforts in the war and so called astounding skill in earth and metal bending, yet she is not capable of marrying? You call her a little girl-but haven't you noticed? A spurt of growth, curves,-"

A burst of water sprayed across the table courtesy of Toph, and then she was revived.

'That's ENOUGH!"

All heads turned in her direction. The girl was breathing heavily, her face still pale from choking. "I'm RIGHT HERE! You're talking about me like I wasn't! This is unbelievable!" Before she metal bended something sharp and pointy into General Gao's heart, she stormed out.

"… You are NOT invited to breakfast anymore!" declared Sokka, who left after shoving as much food as he could into his mouth.

_____________________________________________________________________

The next day Toph found herself sitting forcibly at the head of the long mahogany table that was in the now abandoned counsel room. She didn't know why her friends were so suddenly gung-ho about the whole thing, but they had accepted the task of planning the engagement party, which the about the only thing the counsel could do to get on their good side after General GAO's 'talk'. After a while the ditched the courtyard in favor of this room, because Katara said they might feel more serious about the planning.

Katara was especially excited. Zuko and Toph leaned back with sour or silent expressions, reluctantly watching the heated debate.

"No, it's going to be outside! The scenery will be a lot nicer," Katara insisted. She was in charge of writing down the details, and she was clutching her quill so hard that it might snap in half.

"That sounds okay," Aang said.

"Okay! But I'm telling you it is WAY too hot out to be outside for a long time. The Fire Nation is too hot." Sokka preached.

Zuko grumbled something along the lines of, "No, the South Pole is too cold," which was the first input of words he had injected in the whole planning process.

"How about the beach?" asked Suki lightly. A pause followed her words, and a smile spread across Katara's features.

"Yes… I like the beach. Sokka likes the beach."

"I like the beach!" said Aang.

"Me too!" piped in Ty Lee, who was also apart of the planning. She was disappointed that Haru and Teo were doing other things, but decided to tag along anyway.

"Okay, but do Zuko and Toph like the beach?" asked Suki suddenly, and a dozen heads turned to either head of the table where Toph and Zuko were brooding to themselves. Zuko suddenly snapped to attention upon being addressed.

"Do you like the beach?" Suki asked again, ever more optimistically.

"I don't care," the Fire Lord answered stoically. Katara sighed and folded her hands together, and turned towards her greatest obstacle.

"Toph… Do you like the beach?" Even Zuko looked curiously at the bored earth bender. Toph blew the bangs out of her eyes and paused, full of suspense before answering.

"Not really. I can barely see."

Sokka moaned and Aang slapped a hand to his head. They nearly arrived a conclusion. Toph lowered her head to the table as the distant sound of Katara and Sokka's bickering tickled her ears, oblivious to the set of golden eyes that wandered briefly on the back of her head, then looked away.

Then Aang propped his head up on his hands and stared at her sadly.

She's lying. She likes the beach,

_________________________________________________________________-

Night woke him.

He gasped for breath as if the air were choking him itself, and pushed himself up on his elbows. He kicked the rouge covers off of him, and slid sideways on his bed. His bare feet touched the floor, and with a flick of his wrist, a lamp burst into flame. The darkness was smothering him, and he could hardly breathe.

Any light, anything warm, Zuko needed fire. The dim light of the stars above him, and fresh air. Shelter from all the responsibilities and oppressing obligation that weighed him down, he wanted to walk outside. But for the first time since childhood, something was scaring him. He couldn't tell what it was, but it lay in the dark.

Zuko was scared of the dark.

His feet carried him down the halls, all the while an eerie feeling prickling on the back of his neck. He felt like he did when he was a child, wandering in the dark after hearing a foreign noise-he was too scared to light a flame, fearing what he might see.

It was ridiculous, but he couldn't control this feeling.

Before he knew it, he was outside, and the relief of the chilling, open air washed over him. But it was still dark, and Zuko didn't like it. His face slipped into a lost expression.

A noise.

He twitched, but blamed it on his reflexes rather than fear.

"Who's there?" he called, successfully keeping the hesitant edge out of his voice. It disturbed him when no answer came, just the silent darkness inviting him deeper. "I said… "

"It's just me, Sparky." He was more surprised to hear that smooth, enigmatic but harmless voice than he would be to hear a thief or a bandit. For a moment his tongue was tied, but there was no doubting who the unique voice belonged to.

'Don't light a fire. I don't want my Servant Girl to wake up and drag me back to bed," she said, then lapsed back into the silence that turned less oppressing and a bit more safe. The sound of her voice, the realness of it, extinguished his fear that this might be a dream, a nightmare, or something else. Nothing could imitate her voice.

"Oh, fine. …What are you doing?" Zuko asked, searching for the direction of the voice.

"Sitting," she said quietly after a while.

"Well I can't see," Zuko replied. The darkness spread over the courtyard like an infinite blanket, but Zuko didn't want to return inside. But he didn't like being blind, either.

A very quiet, light laugh resounded from the other end of the courtyard.

"Tell me about it," Toph said. "Jumpy much? Don't worry about it. I'll be your eyes."

That's comforting, Zuko thought sarcastically, and his imagination showed him images of himself tripping blindly in the dark while Toph threw up rock obstacles to block his path. He smirked to himself and turned his ear towards her.

A small splash reached his ears; the gentle sound of water. Toph was stirring the water at the fountain, and he took a few hesitant steps in her direction.

"Forward," she told him. "Keep going. Stop. Turn around… and sit."

Zuko did as he was told, and her directions proved reliable. He could tell he was sitting at the fountain edge, pretty much next to her. After his safe landing there was more silence, until Zuko found it uncomfortable. And usually he wasn't the one to complain about a lack of words, but the moment he sat down so many things began subtly stirring inside him.

"What are you doing here, sitting by yourself in the dark?" He suddenly asked, a desolate tinge in his voice. His eyes shifted towards her, although he couldn't see.

Is this what's it's like to be blind? It's easy to forget Toph is, but how could she stand it? Being sightless, he felt like his own personal aura was a force field he had to use to sense and touch other things, and other people.

"Why are you?" she returned, smart as usual. Those kinds of replies made the former prince annoyed.

"I needed fresh air," he said. "I didn't sleep well. You didn't answer my question."

"Some people go outside to look at the stars… but I've never seen the sky before. Sometimes I like sitting under them."

Her words stung even him. He unconsciously flinched; she had never seen the sky before. There were a lot of things she had never seen, and he didn't have the heart to tell her there weren't any stars in the sky that night.

"I see," Zuko said. Toph began to swing her feet.

"It doesn't matter. The sky, faces, it's all the same to me."

"What?" Zuko said softly. He couldn't understand how the two were the same, except she could see neither. Toph's voice grew even quieter.

"It's your face too. It's even more like the sky than the rest." She said this like a statement, one that carried her into her own swirling thoughts. Zuko's gaze moved back up to the sky, and he was filled with relief to see the clouds shift and uncover the stars. The sky was the only thing left to penetrate the darkness with it's distant fires.

…And the sky was beautiful. How could his face and the sky be at all the same?

"How?" Zuko asked. Toph rolled her eyes, aware that he could not see her gesture.

"Everyone can see it… It's a mystery to me. Everyone knows about it but me." Zuko flushed.

"You mean you've heard them talk about my scar," Zuko said bluntly. Unconsciously, his hand wandered up to the rough tissue that covered one side of his eye and face. Toph sensed his movement and froze.

After a few seconds… "You have a scar?"

He could have fell over backwards into the still fountain water. He let out air through his nose and leaned back, disbelieving. Could she really not have known?

"You didn't know that," he said.

"No… I've heard people talk though. I just thought you were extremely handsome or something, judging by how Katara and Suki talked." She sounded interested.

What?

"Could've been something else, I guess," Toph added, he voice mocking.

"Yeah, something else," he repeated a little bitterly. He sighed deeply.

"Like what?" Toph asked innocently. Her voice was so free of judgment, serene and curious that it made him feel like he had an open invitation to tell her anything. Unfortunately, the Fire Lord was still a little frosty about his past. He couldn't remember telling more than a handful of people about the incident that marked him forever.

But somehow, he could tell her-at least, he would have to summon up the strength to at least let his 'fiancée' know what she was marrying if it all went as the counsel planned.

"When I was younger, my father… gave me this scar through an agni kai," he began a bit painfully, and proceeded with some unfriendly details as the girl sat and listened quietly. At the end of it all, she let him sit and reflect on the things he moved on from.

"Oh… " Toph muttered at last. "I didn't know. I can 'see' your face, but not the details. Like I said, it's kind of like the sky."

Zuko's brow furrowed again as he rounded on the girl. The darkness was beginning to lift and a mass of clouds he didn't know where there rolled with the wind. The moon was uncovered, it's unfiltered light flooding onto them and their pale faces. He could now see the hazy, blank green eyes of Toph, whose face tilted somewhat towards him.. "How?" he asked, still perplexed. Her expression didn't change.

"I told you. It's kind of a mystery, everyone likes it… I wish I could see it." Zuko blinked, slightly perturbed. Her voice contained a child like curiosity, and Zuko couldn't help but think it was unfair to be asked to marry someone she couldn't even see, let alone… all the other reasons. His eyes wandered tentatively to her small hands.

"You can.. touch it," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. He knew she wanted to ask by the her voice, which was laden with innocent curiosity. For once she turned her face, her eyes widened in surprise. She recognized the hesitance in his voice.

"Okay," she said simply. Toph was never embarrassed, never indirect. She was blissfully unaware of the popping of Zuko's personal bubble as she reached for his face. Zuko closed his eyes, dreading the touch.

When it came, it wasn't a sudden advance, the kind he thought might be painful. Her fingers were cool and he could feel them easily, starting on the smooth part of his skin. He kept his face stoic as her soft fingers moved upwards. For an earth bender, her hands were not rough, but instead surprisingly soft. The touch found the burnt tissue that scarred his face.

She was only touching him with the tips of her fingers; they wandered up and traced over his eye, and the side of his face, and at last to his ear. He opened his eyes, but her face was downcast as usual, with thick bangs falling over her eyes. With the other hand she briefly felt the unmarred side of his face.

She could sense that he opened his eyes, and slowly withdrew her hand, with two eyes focused on her lap. The golden eyes narrowed, and were cast down also. He wished she could have remained ignorant to the worst part of himself.

"You know, if I could suddenly see the sky now, what I felt about it wouldn't change, " she said with a smirk. "I've liked it all along. I just don't know what the big fuss is about."

Rather than see the smile of relief on his face, she felt it. Zuko snorted, and told her they should go back inside.

he thought sullenly.