Title: Lie To Me
Summary: In a desperate attempt to connect to anyone in the group, Zuko comes up with a game. "Lie to me, Toph." Starting as light-hearted banter, the game soon becomes a way for them to deal with fears and hopes, regrets and dreams.
Warnings: some angst, some romance
Pairings: Toko (Zuko/Toph)
Disclaimer: The TV show "Avatar - The Last Airbender" does not belong to me, nor do its characters or anything related to the show. I make no profit out of this story, it is written merely for fun and entertainment of other fans.
A/N: Thank you, Pepipanda, for corrections and improvements to this story.
Lie To Me
"Lie to me, Toph. "
The blind earthbender lifted her head and wrinkled her nose in irritation. It wasn't that she minded being left behind with Zuko, and, truth be told, she found his awkward attempts to start conversation highly amusing. From time to time though, the firebender could be plain weird.
The whole group had been glad when Katara had announced that a trip to the closest small town was necessary to stock up on supplies, allowing everyone to tag along. Everyone except Zuko. With a dark look in her eyes, the waterbender had made it clear that Zuko's face was pretty much the only one that could be recognised on sight. Even Haru had winced in sympathy, for it was clear that Katara had said this to remind the firebender of the supposedly hideous scar on his face. "We can't take any risks. If anyone recognised you, it would put all of us in danger", she had explained further.
Everyone had been uncomfortable. On the one hand, they weren't sure how to act around the latest addition to their team. They didn't trust him, they couldn't yet, but it was still strange to exclude him openly like that. There had been no arguing that Katara had a point, though. Fortunately, Zuko had spared them any further trouble.
"Alright." His voice, Toph had noticed then, had a strangely hushed quality around all of them. She hadn't heard him speak on many occasions, but he had always struck her as powerful and confident. Here at the Western Air Temple, around Aang, Katara, Sokka, and the rest, he seemed almost timid, like a pup that was genuinely scared of doing its master wrong again and receiving further punishment. "I wanted to prepare the Av-… Aang's first lesson anyway."
Toph had grinned to herself. She loved how he stumbled over words occasionally. His heart would always do a little nervous twitch whenever he slipped like that. It annoyed Katara to no end, as Toph had clearly felt, but everyone else seemed to appreciate his constant efforts to call them by their given names a little.
Katara had been giving off those mistrusting vibrations again then. It had been obvious that she disliked the idea of leaving him behind on his own just as much as she hadn't wanted him to come along. Toph had painted small circles into the dirt with her toes. Yeah, of course he'd use the solitary time to set up a deadly trap, because he hadn't had enough time to slaughter them all in their sleep over the past few nights. How anyone could refuse to see that Katara could be as dangerously thickheaded as any earthbender was beyond Toph.
"Toph!" The earthbender hadn't needed sight to know that there was a very fake smile plastered on Katara's lips. The delight in the other's voice had worried her, though. If the waterbender found something delightful after just mulling over "Project: Restrain Zuko" it didn't strike Toph as anything she wanted a hand in. Or a foot, for that matter. "Why don't you stay behind to keep him some company?"
"Him" being Zuko, whose tortured, if stifled, groan had told Toph that he had seen through Katara's move just as easily as she had done herself. Of course, he couldn't know that Katara wanted to avoid getting Toph anywhere close to gambling and the likes ever again – as if she'd be successful in the long run. What he did know, Toph had realized with a smirk, was that the blind earthbender herself had promised revenge for her burnt feet. Something neither Katara nor Toph herself had forgotten, much to the prince's disappointment. Maybe playing along with Katara for once would prove to be fun after all.
"I'm in", Toph had announced.
As soon as the others had departed, though, Zuko had obviously decided to grow a backbone again.
"If you think I'm going to clean your feet, you might find banging your head against a wall more satisfying."
Toph had laughed out loud at that. "You do have some fight left in you after all, Sparky?"
The irritation rising in him had been obvious. Once again, though, he had swallowed it. Toph had just blown some strands of hair out of her face in annoyance.
Zuko was a wild animal locked in a cage. At that moment, Toph had felt the itch to set him free. He was a prince, yes, but also a warrior, a beast of prey. Something feline, sleek and elegant, precise and deadly, strong and fast. It was in the vibrations he gave off, for no matter how awkwardly he would move around camp, Toph could still pick it up. He would be breathtaking.
"Tell you what", she had announced then. "You shoot some sparks, I'm gonna ponder a good punishment some more."
She could have sworn he had mumbled something like "Lucky me" before he had started working on what he wanted to teach Aang first.
After that it had just gone from kinda tense to horribly awkward. Toph had made several attempts to tease and distract him, which had worked, but instead of snapping back, he had just hung his head and dismissed the issue. On other occasions he had attempted to get her to do some smalltalk, but she knew those tricks, of course. He was not the only one who had grown up in upper society. It had taken him a few rough lessons to learn how not to approach her for conversation.
And now this.
"Lie to me, Toph."
She pondered his words, confused. What was he getting at? Was this another one of these weird social games, one she didn't understand? He must have read her annoyance in the way she scrunched up her face because he came over and sat next to her.
"It's a game I used to play, sometimes with Azula, sometimes by myself. It's about telling the best lies."
Toph snorted. "Sounds pretty stupid." She could feel him flinching ever so slightly and felt like she had kicked a puppy. Snorting again, she crossed her arms. "I could tell if you were lying anyway."
There was longing in his voice, she could tell. It disturbed her to imagine him longing for games he had played with his sister long ago. It meant she had been human once. "It's not about deceiving the other. It's just about making up the best lie."
For a while, they sat in silence. Zuko was giving off warmth, a heat she could feel even though he sat at what would be considered appropriate distance in a more formal setting. Firebenders. It was quite comfortable, actually. Toph imagined plotting with Sokka to invent revolutionary hot-water bottles: just manacle firebenders, gag them and stuff them in your bed to keep it comfortably warm all the time. Heh. The fun of it. And if you wanted to get rid of them real quick, you could always just put one in Katara's bed.
"So. It would be something like… I'm not the best earthbender in the whole wide world."
His low chuckle trickled down her spine. It was the most pleasant sound she had heard in quite some time.
"No. That was wrong."
She opened her mouth to protest, but then she smirked as she picked up the undercurrent. "I like to wear dresses."
That one actually had her snorting with laughter. She decided that whatever happened, one of these days, she would have to put Zuko in one of the stupid silky dresses like those she had to wear at home. Not because he would look hilarious in them, of course, for she would not be able to see that, but to feel him squirm and blush, to hear him stammer and stutter, until he would finally get annoyed, yell at her and shred the dress. He'd probably burn it, and she would have the fun of a lifetime.
Half an hour later, they were casually leaning against each other, Toph grinning foolishly and hearing Zuko's own huge smile clearly in his voice. It was a nice game, she decided, one to lighten any mood. They had told the most hilarious and the most stupid lies, from the colour of the sky (which had kind of irritated them both after a while), to their own lives (Zuko was obviously the well-loved king of the flourishing kingdom of Peace, which Toph corrected to him being the founder of a tea shop kingdom), to their preferences (they had both discovered their love of blonde giggling girls and Zuko had even expressed his regret over breaking up with Appa), they had spun tales of heroism (Toph had the upper hand here with tales about the Fire Nation local hero Wang Fire), and twisted classic tales (Zuko had clearly seen through Toph's disguise; she was just a girl posing as a boy who pretended to be a girl, obviously).
Now they sat back to back and were fighting the occasional laugh or chuckle that would arise each time they remembered a particularly absurd lie.
"This is horribly boring, you know?" Toph declared after a while.
Zuko's elbow gently nudged her side. She liked that he was affectionate like this, like her, although he didn't punch other people. Still, when not bound by the rules of high society, he was physical, he touched, and his touch was just a little rough around the edges. Just like him.
"I can remember the last time I enjoyed myself like this."
His voice was rather light-hearted, but he had obviously forgotten that she could tell when he was faking something as obvious as his mood. Toph felt his heartache. "You're happy."
She could feel him turning his head until his gaze settled on here again. Their shoulders were touching. He was tense and warm, proud and insecure, curious and scared. He knew that she knew. For a while Zuko seemed to hover on the brink of saying more, then his fingertips brushed her elbow and he rose from his seat.
Toph felt him walk towards their supplies, pick something up and then walk to the fountain. Not fetching fresh water, then, but fetching water nonetheless. He didn't carry the bucket back, however, but asked her to come over to the fountain instead. With a grunt she blew some strand of hair to the side but followed his plea nonetheless. Never would she admit to being curious. Out of habit, she dipped her fingertips into the cool water as she sat down on the fountain's edge. She frowned and then grinned when she felt him positioning not one, but two buckets full of water in front of her.
"Going to clean my feet after all, Sparky?"
There a light slap to her knee, which she answered by kicking his shoulder. Easy enough, he had been kneeling down. Now he was probably scowling, so she smiled cheekily at him.
"Just giving you a treat to lighten the payback" he explained. He probably considered this punishment enough, but knew as well as her that their opinions differed greatly on this matter.
Leaning back, she allowed him to pull the cuffs off. It had never occurred to her before that the simple feel of fingers wrapped around her ankle could be quite that warm and pleasant. Carefully Zuko guided one leg into the water and then proceeded to repeat the action with the other leg. Seeking revenge for his fingers leaving this weird tingling sensation on her ankle, she pushed the second foot into the water forcefully, splashing Zuko. Toph smirked when she felt his glare.
Time to irk him some more. "You call this a treat? The water's frigging cold!"
Warm breath ghosted over her face and Toph blushed. She hadn't even noticed him leaning in like that. "Why don't you shut that foul mouth of yours for a second and let me do my work? Unless you want me to boil your feet. Accidentally."
"One of these days, I'll push you over the edge", Toph announced, intentionally leaving him to wonder whether she meant to make him snap or fall off the platform.
The water started to warm around her feet. It was a very pleasant sensation, relaxing and soothing. She could just imagine her feet feeling all new after this treatment. Maybe she would consider punishing Zuko with doing this for her every day. Twice. Toph leaned forward, arms outstretched, until her fingertips touched his shoulders and her forehead bumped against his.
"Ow", he mocked, receiving a stronger headbutt this time around. He just pushed his head against hers until he was sitting upright again.
Toph's hands trailed downwards, following the soft folds of his shirt to the warm skin of his forearms. Deliberately keeping her touch feathery, she was weirdly happy to notice goosebumps rising on his flesh. It felt curiously strange under her fingertips. Finally, she reached his wrists and discovered the mystery of the warming water. The fingers of each hand were dipped into the water, his skin gradually gaining warmth from his wrists downwards.
"No flames", she observed. "Just heat." Which answered the unspoken question oh why he had not asked her to put her feet into the fountain. The small amount of water in the buckets could be warmed with much less effort.
He started to stay something, but stopped himself.
They stayed like that, her feet soaking in pleasantly warm water, her hands resting on his wrists, foreheads touching and bangs mingling, pretty much hiding her face from his gaze. Not that it mattered. The position of his head suggested he was staring down into the water anyway.
"Lie to me, Zuko."
After a small hesitation, he spoke reluctantly. "I never used my bending to fake a fever just to get my mother to spend hours at my bedside. I don't want to go back to those times."
She could feel it. His unwillingness to open up, his yearning for someone to understand him anyway. And she did.
"My mother used to tell me wonderful stories when I got sick." Toph's fingernails dug into the tender skin of Zuko's wrists. He didn't move. "It's not like I ever wanted her to. She just did it and made me feel… as though she cared for me. It never mattered that I was the tiny blind girl. She just saw me."
Oh, when had they gone from making up hilarious lies to talking about their parents? There was a dull ache in Toph's chest, one she fought to forget and bury beneath layers of dirt and hard rock each and every day.
"Even though they have always loved me just the right way", Toph continued in a whisper, "I don't worry for them."
She could feel him nodding, just a little. "You don't worry over what your absence did to them. Nor do you worry about what your absence didn't do to them. Neither the thoughts of what could have changed, nor of what might not have changed after all, leave you paralyzed, unable to think about going back."
It hurt to have her deepest wounds pointed out by someone else as easily as that. Someone who didn't even know her half as well as the others should know her. But then again, maybe that was the trick. They were strangers still, and yet they could relate on some bizarre level, balancing on the edge of shallow and too deep, giving away thoughts and fears, but taking them equally.
It was crazy. It was perfect. It was them, bonding over a silly game of lies that gave them enough cover to shift the masks and show the pain.
"You don't miss them", Zuko whispered after a while. "Neither do I."
Toph's right hand made the slow journey upwards again, brushing over his arm, shoulder, ghosting over his pulse until her fingertips hovered right where soft skin suddenly became rougher scar tissue. She did not move further.
"I can talk about this with the others openly. They would never dare to judge or pity me", she admitted.
The forehead pressed against hers shifted. She guessed that Zuko was trying to gaze at her. His left hand left the water, causing small rippled to brush against her bare calf. A moment later, his wet index finger, still giving off a pleasant warmth, touched her cheek right beneath her eye and wandered down, leaving a wet trail not unlike the track of a tear.
"Then don't talk to me", he offered.
Toph allowed a small smile to tug the corners of her mouth upwards. "Tell you what. I just decided against punishing you with abusing you as my own emotional waste bin."
Her thumb rested close to his mouth, so that she could feel the gentle smile. "Punishment rejected."
He got a small, affirmative nod, then she pinched the cheek she had been touching. Hard. "The water, Sparky!"
The soft skin of his face and the rough scarred area around his left eye moved beneath her fingertips as he grimaced. It felt strangely pleasant. He lowered his hand to warm the water again and Toph blinked in confusion when she found she missed the touch. Damn Zuko for making her feel so sentimental. The silence that followed was comfortable instead of awkward, but Toph's thoughts kept returning to their game of truth and lies.
"Your turn", she stated after a while.
"I don't long for my father's approval anymore, but I know I will gain it someday. However, I haven't learned that there are more important things. More important people."
She moved her hands, tracing the outlines of his jaw.
"I don't think about the battles ahead of us all that often. I'm positive everyone will pull through. I don't worry about them."
His cheeks were slightly sunken, as though he had not been eating enough. The cheekbones were high and prominent, aristocratic.
"I don't think… Aang will be able to defeat the Fire Lord. It wouldn't mean Ozai's death. It's not likely that the same is waiting for Azula. I don't care."
The gentle curve of his lips, full, but not in a feminine way. Sensual. Soft. She had expected his lips to be chapped, like her own, and was pleasantly surprised. The corners of his mouth twitched ever so slightly when she touched them.
"I have an idea of what I want to do when this is all over."
Nothing all that special about the nose, she guessed. Straight. His breath was warm and ghosted over her hands.
"I'm not afraid to die battling them."
She tenderly traced her fingers over his right eye. Long lashes. The eyebrow was relaxed, although she could imagine him frowning most of the time. The eye was a little slanted. Feline, just as she had known all along.
"I am really confident about making it in one piece. I have been completely honest on that part."
His skin was soft and delicate. Princess, she thought, but she could relate. Her own skin was too soft for her years too, pampered by years of upper class life. That was why she enjoyed coating herself in dirt. He, though, had something else there on his face to prove himself as a warrior, a rebel in his own way.
"I don't believe in you. You're weak. Weaker than you should be. Weaker than all of them. You share your burden, you let them comfort you."
"That's why we're not having this conversation."
"So that there's no one who knows everything should we survive."
The scar was rough beneath her fingertips. It was big, she could tell. It had burned away one eyebrow, disfigured his left eye, which was barely more than a slit surrounded by uneven tissue. The ear on that side was mostly burned away, too. She wondered, as she traced the shell of his undamaged ear, if he had ever been able to come to the same conclusion about his looks as she had done.
"I have been thinking a lot about the girl I'm supposed to be in love with. I think if I were to die I would have known what it feels like to love another. The thought doesn't scare me. It doesn't make me feel inhuman. I don't need to be able to love when even young and naïve Aang can, right?"
He was beautiful.
"I don't care about that stuff, too. I think there's never going to be someone who… wait. I don't think I could fall for someone like you. I can't tell you're blushing like mad, by the way."
It was hers, now. His face. Even if she stopped touching it now, she had memorized the feel of it.
"I never get that mad urge to throttle you, you know? Still. I don't think I could ever imagine you and me becoming an us in the future. I could picture it now, though, because… well…"
His heart fluttered a little and more heat rose to his cheeks. Toph grinned and spared him the task of saying what they both knew.
"I'm old enough. Not awkward at all, isn't it? But it's not as if we have lots to think of besides mushy romantic stuff. There's no war to end, no peace to establish."
"No mothers and uncles to find. No parents who might have changed enough."
"Well, now that we haven't talked about that, I suggest you just never make sure to know my birthday. Because then you'll never be able to show up on my… say… sixteenth birthday party and see if there might be some sparks flying, Sparky."
"Then I won't."
"I expected you to take this seriously."
"But I didn't."
Those soft lips touched hers for a second, barely making real contact. It was chaste. It could easily be brushed off as a brother's kiss, or that of a best friend.
To Toph, Zuko had sealed a promise by giving her this first, innocent kiss.
When the others returned from their trip, they found both Zuko and Toph dozing in the afternoon sun. Both were lying on their backs and the earthbender had casually flung her legs over the boy's middle. One of his arms supported his own head, while the other was resting on her legs, fingers slipped under her trousers and curled around her knee.
Katara stormed off, muttering something about these two lazybones, while the others found themselves in states between confused, and scared by the prospect of Toph and Zuko teaming up.
As soon as all of them were gone, twin smirks could be seen on Zuko's and Toph's faces.
My first Toko! squeals Though, of course, it's really just a lot of bonding and becoming very close friends in this, with a few hints for what they could easily become later. Foreshadowing for the win! But how could I let them actually become involved with each other when Toph is something between 12 and 13 and Zuko is four years older? But I'm very happy how this turned out.
Did you like it, too?
Thank you for reading. Please review!