"Fire Lord Zuko, do you not understand what it means to be Fire Lord?"
"Yes, I do, but—"
"No!" His advisor, Makiki interrupted. "I do not want to hear your excuses, Fire Lord Zuko."
Zuko's eyes narrowed.
"My Lord, please," Makiki sighed, then frowned and adjusted Zuko's bun so it was sitting perfectly on his head again. "Part of being a Fire Lord is having a Fire Lady."
Zuko grit his teeth. "Father didn't have a Fire Lady," he grumbled.
Makiki rolled his golden eyes. "Honestly, my Lord… Your father didn't get the full title of Fire Lord, with all the powers it pertains too, until he was married. As will you have to be married to get all of the Fire Lord's powers. Until then, the elders can override any of your decisions."
Zuko had to fight to calm himself. "Makiki, I'm not going through with an arranged marriage."
"Of course not," Makiki gasped. "Well, I mean, unless you can't find a wife by the provided time."
Zuko groaned. "And how long is that?" He clenched his fist, struggling to remain calm.
"Oh…" Makiki bit his lip. "The rule is… that the Fire Lord must be married by his twenty-first birthday."
"My twenty-first birthday?! That's in a month!" His hands burst into flames, and Makiki was suddenly worried that Zuko might breathe fire at him. "I have been ruling since I was seventeen! Why am I only hearing of this now?!"
"My lord," Makiki continued, his eyes wide at this breach of self-control. "I… I do not control such things. It was the elders… I assume they didn't want you to be told…"
"Of course it was," he snarled viciously. He took a deep breath, and the flames on his hands died out.
He'd known for a long time that the elder's didn't like that Zuko had taken control. He knew that those elders had served his father very faithfully, a few of them having served under Aluzon as well. Most of them agreed with Sozin's decision to start the war, and the participation Aluzon and Ozai had in the war. Now that Zuko had officially ended the war, and was working towards peace with the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom, a lot of the elders were a bit unhappy with him. He didn't know what they'd do if they took his nation from him, but he didn't think it was a positive thing for the rest of the world. He would have to find some girl to marry, or else.
Makiki bit his lip, deliberating for a moment. "My lord… perhaps… Mai?"
Zuko's eyes narrowed, glimmering with hurt. "No."
Mai and Zuko had been fighting a lot after they got together. Mai had betrayed Azula in the beginning, but she missed her friend now that she was gone. She often went to the prison to visit Azula, who was recovering, and wasn't as unstable as she had been. Zuko didn't like this, but he didn't complain too much. Azula and Zuko rarely saw each other—Azula hated her brother more passionately than ever now that he had her nation. Azula didn't like Mai dating Zuko, and Zuko didn't like Mai being friends with Azula, after all she'd done. In the end, that was what had done them in. However it had happened, Mai had chosen Azula over Zuko. And she had broken up with him.
Makiki nodded—he had been expecting such a response. "Well, my lord… you will have to find a woman of noble blood."
"Any woman of noble blood?" Zuko frowned. There were a lot of women like that. It might have been easier to have more limitations, in all honesty.
"Yes, Fire Lord Zuko. Any woman of noble blood… of course, if she won't agree to marry you, we can have it arranged so that she doesn't have a choice, as long as her parents agree. And what parents wouldn't?"
"No, I don't want to force her to marry me," Zuko growled.
"Of course, my lord. I was only saying," Makiki murmured.
"Any other restrictions?"
"No, my lord."
Zuko nodded. "I see." With a sigh, he walked away from his advisor and through the lonely halls of his palace. When he arrived in his room at last, he found his messenger hawks—he had several. He wrote two letters, and released two hawks. Soon enough, he would speak to his other advisors.
It should have taken longer than it did, by all regards. But Zuko had claimed that the matter was urgent, and he needed them as soon as possible.
Katara, Aang, and Sokka—all three living in the South Pole, received a message for the three of them. Zuko said that he needed to speak with them, he needed help with some matter. Usually, he only called for Aang. Aang was the Fire Lord's best friend, and as the Avatar, he was important in making decisions to heal the cuts in the world the war had left behind before they scarred. Katara and Sokka were also Zuko's best friends, but they weren't as involved with the worldly affairs. The only time they came to the Fire Nation was usually personal visits. It was clear from the letter that this wasn't such an event.
Aang sat on Appa's head as the large bison rode towards the Fire Nation. "Almost there," the seventeen year old Avatar called over his shoulder.
"Finally! As much as I love Appa, I hate flying… still."
Katara laughed. "Oh, come on, Toph. It's been nice to bond with you again. I haven't seen you in like a year."
Toph rolled her eyes. "I know, I know."
"I'm just curious about why Zuko wants us so bad," Sokka interrupted. "What could he need us for? All of us, I mean. Not that I don't like being included. It just makes me a little worried."
Aang didn't respond, and neither did the others. This sort of thing had been on his mind the whole time. Why did Zuko need all four of them? Wasn't Aang enough, or was this problem too large for the Avatar and the Fire Lord alone?
But the sooner he arrived the better, so it was best to focus on the journey, for now. After a few minutes of tension, the conversation lighted again, Katara complaining that the wind had messed up her hair, and Aang assuring her that it looked beautiful as ever.
When they arrived, they were greeted the same way they always were—with Zuko's guards. The guards escorted them to the palace, and they all found their way to the conference room, only to be told that Zuko was in his room.
"His room? He always comes out to meet us," Katara mused.
The others were getting more and more worried.
As they arrived at Zuko's room, Aang stepped forward and knocked lightly on the door. "Zuko? You in there? Uh, it's Aang."
There was silence for a few seconds, before they heard the shuffle of feet, and Zuko opened the door. His golden eyes roamed over each of them, before he nodded and let them in.
The first thing Aang noticed was that Zuko wasn't wearing his bun. His shaggy hair was down and hanging around his face, the way it did only when they were being casual with each other, when he was escaping his typical Fire Nation duties. He also noticed that he was wearing casual robes as well, nothing too fancy.
But what he noticed most was Zuko's eyes. The golden eyes of the Fire Lord were filled with some strange sort of despair that Aang didn't even know of. Aang's gray eyes widened, and he felt the others—even Toph, who seemed to simply ifeel/i the intensity—tense up at the raw angst emanating off of their friend.
"What happened, Zuko?" Aang gasped, suddenly alarmed.
Zuko frowned, and stepped aside. "Inside, now. I'm avoiding my advisor, and the elders." He waited impatiently as they shuffled into his room before closing the door and locking it.
Once the door was locked, Zuko took a breath and turned away from them, but did not speak.
"What's going on, Zuko?" Katara asked.
"Yeah, fess up. Dragging me all the way here for no reason is bound to piss me off, Sparky, so get talking," Toph complained.
Zuko scowled as he turned back to face them. "I have a reason. And stop calling me that," he growled. Toph insisted on calling him that during every visit. His anger faded, replaced by the agony they'd seen moments ago, and he let out an exhausted sounding sigh. "I… I need help. I don't know what to do."
"So what's wrong?" Sokka asked, repeating the question everyone else had asked so far.
Zuko grit his teeth and hesitated for a moment. "There's… I… They… They're making me get married. I have to get married."
Everyone was very quiet for a minute.
"What?!" Aang exploded.
"What do you mean?!" Katara gasped.
"That's crazy!" Sokka yelled.
"Who?!" Toph demanded.
Zuko's gaze flickered from face to face for a moment before he started his explanation. "Ah, well… The elders are demanding that I marry before my twenty-first birthday."
"Why?" Sokka gasped.
"I don't know, I guess it's some tradition that the Fire Lord has to have a Fire Lady by now. So they can be sure I'll give them an heir, I guess." Zuko shrugged, eyes downcast.
"What'll they do if you don't get married?" Toph asked, a growl present in her voice.
Zuko sighed. "I forfeit my position and powers to the elders. Or whoever they deem worthy of taking over the throne."
"Your people would never follow them," Katara snarled.
"They would, though," Zuko sighed, ashamed. "I've brought them peace, and some of them appreciate it. But there are still people who believe in the war, and think I shouldn't have ended it. I should have led the Fire Nation to victory, and ended the… 'inferior' kingdoms of the world." He shook his head. "The elders are some such people."
"That's horrible," Katara murmured.
Aang let out an even breath. "So why are we here?"
Zuko looked up at him, frowning. "To be honest, I guess I asked you guys to come here for comfort. I don't iwant/i to marry some random woman who I don't know. I want to marry for love, just like everyone else in the world. How can I fall in love in a month?!"
Toph suddenly spoke up. "You've had five years to get married. Why have you waiting until just now to start looking?" Her voice was bitter.
Zuko glared at her, but she didn't shrink back. Maybe because she couldn't see it. He was sure she could feel it, though. "I iwould/i have been more prepared, had I known. Makiki—my advisor—thinks the elders were keeping it from me. They don't like my rule, because I'm peaceful. If I can't get married, they get what they want."
Toph's jaw locked, and she scowled at the ground. "Oh."
"They can't do that to you!" Katara exploded.
"They can," Zuko sighed. "And they can overrule any decision of mine as well. I'm powerless until I marry."
"Okay," Aang sighed. "So, clearly, we can't change the fact that you have to get married. That's a done deal. But, as the Avatar, and, as your friend, I think we can at least try to help you with something. Any requirements for your… er… wife?"
Zuko winced at the word. "Yes. She has to have noble blood. Not royal blood, but noble blood. She can't be a commoner."
All four of them nodded. "All right. And…" Sokka frowned. "It's definitely over with Mai, right?"
Zuko's jaw clenched. "Definitely."
They nodded again solemnly. "Well, listen Zuko," Katara said. "We're your friends, and we're going to help you through this. I'd be happy to help however I can. I'm going to sort through the possible girls and find you the best matches. After all, we four know you best. And Aang best of all. So he'll help me." She smiled and took his hand. He smiled back at her.
"Toph and I could help you out around the palace, if you need anything," Sokka volunteered. "You're still the Fire Lord, and we'll stand by you."
"Of course," Toph murmured in agreement.
Zuko smiled. "Thanks, guys. This is really great of you. I've already been on a few dates," Zuko grimaced. It had taken his friends five days to get here, and he'd had a date every night. "And I have another tonight and tomorrow. I'm never free. Makiki is arranging them, which is why I'm avoiding him…" He smiled sheepishly. "I haven't met any girls I like yet. But if you're helping, maybe I'll meet a good girl this time."
Katara smiled. "I'll do my best."
Aang nodded. "We'll get going then." He waved good-bye quickly as he and Katara fled from the room.
"Need any help getting ready for tonight's date?" Sokka asked, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
"Not really," Zuko shook his head. "My attendants like to take care of that," he rolled his eyes.
"Mine, too. This must suck, Sparky. I hate dates." Toph shook her head in annoyance.
The boys both frowned. "What do you mean?" Sokka asked.
"Oh, I didn't tell you guys? Well, obviously I didn't tell Sparky… I should have mentioned it on the way, I guess." Toph smirked and sat on Zuko's bed without asking permission. "Yeah, well, since I'm turning eighteen in three months, my mom and dad have been trying to get me a husband. It's some upperclass thing to get married at a young age. I guess it's like that here, too. They want me with a nice, rich boy. Love doesn't matter. I don't think my parents even love each other." She sighed. "And it seems that all the high-class guys I meet are cocky blockheads who love themselves and money more than anything else. I hate people like that."
Zuko nodded vigorously. "That's exactly what I've been going through. Every girl I've met had been obsessed with beauty and money. And the position as Fire Lady doesn't hurt either." He shook his head in aggravation. "I'll never meet a good girl."
"Me neither. Well, guy. I completely understand what you mean. Well," Toph frowned. "Not… completely. I mean, they want me married before eighteen, but I'm still fair game for a while. The age cut off is twenty. When I'm twenty and unmarried, I'm some sort of embarrassment." She laughed. "That'd be me. The girl who's not married by twenty. The horror," she said, feigning fear.
Zuko nodded, sitting down on the bed next to her and looking up at Sokka. "It must be easy for you, right, Sokka? You and Suki are so perfect together. Aang and Katara, too. I wish I could find that."
"Yeah, Suki's great," Sokka smiled, a wistful look in his eyes. In all honesty, he'd been considering proposing to her, and he'd wanted to asking his friends their opinions. He'd only mentioned it to Katara so far, and surely she'd told Aang. But it seemed selfish to bring up such things at a time like this. "I hope you guys can find someone like that."
"I don't think they're anyone left out there like that. Not with noble blood," Zuko rolled his eyes.
"We're doomed," Toph sighed.
Zuko laughed sadly. "Well, we can hang out together when I get banished from the Fire Nation and your parents kick you out."
Toph grinned wide. "I'll look forward to that."
Throughout the next week, Zuko dated a new girl every night.
On Friday, he met a girl named Sari, who was obsessed with her looks. The whole date, she only talked about herself.
On Saturday, Zuko dated a girl named Emi. Emi was very seductive about everything, and stared at Zuko's crown and not his eyes.
On Sunday, he met Kamichi, who seemed very put off by his scar. She could look him in the eyes only for a few moments before she had to look somewhere else, and she looked disgusted. She didn't even eat, claiming to lose her appetite, and excused herself early.
Monday night he met a girl named Chiara. She was very boring, very monotone. She reminded Zuko of Mai, with the way she said whatever to every comment, and rolled her eyes randomly. Even her bored tone.
Tuesday night had him with a girl named Lee Sa. Lee Sa was very vain, and wore too much jewelry for her own good.
Wednesday was Piya, who talked much too much, and didn't let Zuko talk about himself. She told him constantly how great it must be to rule, and how awesome his castle was. She never complimented him directly, but apparently, she'd love a robe like his.
Thursday gave him Hinara, who was constantly looking at herself in the mirror, or any reflective surface. She told Zuko that he'd be lucky to have someone like her, and rambled on about how she'd never once in her many relationships been dumped.
As much as he knew he needed to find a wife, Zuko had demanded a dateless Friday. He needed one day off from his madness, and he didn't think he could handle sticking through another date until he had his night off. He didn't even hang out with his friends—he just locked himself up in his room.
This was just as well, because Sokka had demanded that Aang take him to visit Suki for the day. He hadn't seen her in a week, and he missed her. If Aang was going, then so was Katara, of course. Toph decided to remain at the palace, not all that thrilled with the idea of hanging out with lovebirds all day.
But after an hour of being alone, Toph realized that the palace wasn't all that thrilling, either.
She knocked on Zuko's door quietly. "Hey, Sparky? I know you're hiding from the world, and all, but could you let me in, too? I wouldn't mind hiding, if you don't mind sharing. I hate the world, too."
It was silent.
"Quit calling me that," came the muffled response.
Toph hesitated. "Fine. Now tell me in, iZuko/i."
She listened as Zuko rose to his feet with a sigh, as he shuffled across the floor, and as he opened the door. She could feel the aura of his mood—mostly just exhausted, with aggravated and miserable tossed in for flavor.
As she stepped around him and into his room, she murmured a quick, "Thanks, Sparky," and smirked.
"What is it, Toph?" He asked, closing the door behind her and plopping onto his bed, head down.
Toph frowned. "What, can't I visit my friend without a reason?"
Zuko didn't answer.
"Okay, okay. Sokka is visiting Suki, and Aang and Katara went with him. I'm a little bored. Is that such an issue?"
He frowned. "You get by all right in the Earth Kingdom."
Her eyes narrowed darkly. "Oh, do I? Really? Because you must know all about how I get on on my own, right?"
He frowned. "You seem fine in your letters."
Toph rolled her eyes dramatically. "What should I have my servant write? 'Oh, Zuko, I'm so lonely! Mommy and Daddy are making me so sad and miserable as always, only now I don't have someone to run away with! Poor sad me!' Why would I write that? Things must be the same for you, here. All alone with your servants and such. We're not so different, Zuko." She paused and frowned. "Unless you really don't miss them. Don't miss all of us."
Zuko grit his teeth and got to his feet, glaring. "Of course I miss you guys. I'm not some heartless king who thinks only of himself. Money isn't the only company I need. I hate this life. I mean, I dreamed of it when I was younger, but now I hate it. I'm isolated from everyone."
"Me too," Toph said. "And on my first trip back here iin a whole year/i, maybe I wanted to spend some time with you! You've been on a date every night, and usually, you don't want us around during the day!" She shouted back.
"Because I don't want to bother all of you! Would you want to be around me while I'm brooding and bitching?!"
"Yes!" Toph shouted. "I'm here now, aren't I? And we're in the same boat, Zuko! Or a similar boat. We both have to find some noble to marry us, or else we'll lose something. Yeah, you've got a bit less time than me. I understand. But I'm your friend! I want to be here for you. I want to help you out as best as I can. I know how it feels to be forced into this, with no love. It sucks. I can relate. We could bond over it."
Zuko froze and stared at her. "What?"
"You know… back when you first joined us…" Toph sighed. "I just wanted to be your friend. We had a similar background, with both of us being neglected by our parents and looked down on. I hoped we could bond over it. I… I wanted to be your friend. And I stuck up for you. But you befriended Aang. And then Sokka. And then Katara. And the one time I tried to befriend you, you pushed me away." She frowned, thinking back on their 'fieldtrip.' He scowled at the ground silently at the memory. "Are you going to push me away now, too? While I try to relate to you, to help you feel less isolated, and help me feel less isolated? I'm used to being alone. And I'm sure you are." Her voice lowered. "Question is, do you want to be alone now?"
Zuko took a breath. "No." He paused for a moment, but Toph didn't speak. "It's… nice to know there's someone in the same situation as I am. I mean, it's not good that your parents are forcing this on you, but… it helps to know I'm not so alone. I look at Katara and Aang, smiling at each other, holding hands, kissing… and I think, that must feel so amazing. To be in love like that. I really liked Mai… I don't think I loved her, but I did like her. But I look at those two, and I feel like my relationship with her was completely insignificant. They're in love." He sighed, brushing his black locks aside. "And now that I have to give that up, I think that… that's all I really want."
"I know how that feels, Zuko," Toph said, nodding. "It's so unfair, what our parents or officials make us do. Really, what's the problem with you ruling alone? You don't need someone there."
"I want someone there," Zuko murmured. "I really want someone there. I want to believe that I'll get married, and I won't be alone anymore. But I don't want just anyone. I want someone I love. I want to be with someone I love, forever. And I've only got a little over two weeks left to find that."
Toph's fingers trembled, and she forced them through her hair, desperate to move them somehow. "I want that too," she realized. "Not for my parents." She laughed, but the sound was nervous. "Maybe I should marry some hermit just to piss them off."
"Maybe. But only if you love the hermit," Zuko smirked.
"Of course," Toph murmured. Why was her voice so quiet now, anyway?
Zuko sighed quietly. "Thanks, Toph."
"For coming and making me hear some sense. I needed it. And it's so good to not be alone. You're the only one I can really relate to. We're more alike than I ever dreamed."
Zuko frowned as he stared at her. Her hair was pulled into a complicated looking bun—Katara must have been doing her hair for her—and her bangs were swept to the side. Her green eyes stared forward blindly, but her pale cheeks were rosy with a blush, and her lips were set in a little frown. She looked different than usual—not just her hair, but her expression. She never looked so uncertain before. So confused. So vulnerable.
And before he knew or understood what he was doing, his hand touched her cheeks, shaping itself around the burning flesh. A slight gasp escaped Toph, and her cheeks burned brighter. Zuko smiling slightly—she looked very cute blushing like that. His eyes were intense.
Slowly, he moved closer to her. His lips parted slightly, and hers did the same. They were inches away, their noses just barely touching, when Zuko's door suddenly burst opened. Zuko snatched his hand back instantly, and they both stumbled away from each other.
"Fire Lord Zuko! Excuse my interruption, but," the messenger frowned, glancing between Zuko and Toph for a moment. "Makiki needs to speak with you. Right now."
"Of course," Zuko nodded. The messenger left with a nod of his own. Without bothering to arrange his hair into a bun, he breezed out of the room, muttering a quick and embarrassed good-bye to Toph as he did.
There were so many rooms in Zuko's palace, that they all had their own rooms. No one else ever stayed in their rooms—and even though they didn't visit terribly often, if they ever wanted to move in, they had rooms of their very own right there in Zuko's palace. This was why Katara was so surprised to see Toph in her room when she and the others arrived back at ten at night.
"Finally!" Toph gasped as Katara closed to door.
"What are you doing here?" Katara demanded quietly. "You have your own room, you know."
"Really? There's a shocker," she grumbled. But then her face was serious. "Listen Katara, this is important. I need to talk to you."
Katara frowned, startled the sudden urgency in Toph's voice. "What's wrong, Toph?"
Toph deliberated a moment. "You promise you won't tell anyone? Not even Twinkle-toes?"
"Sure, promise. What is it?" Katara demanded, eager to know this secret.
Toph swallowed, frowning and shuffling her feet. She hesitated. Should she really tell? "I… I think I like Zuko."
There was no response for almost a whole minute.
"What?!" Katara hissed, remembering just in time to keep her voice down.
Toph's cheeks burned. "I know it's bad, right? But I've liked him since I was twelve. I thought it went away, but…" she sighed. "I guess not."
"Why now, Toph? He's got to get married in a few weeks!"
"I know!" Toph moaned.
Katara sighed. "Toph…" She bit her lip. "I don't know what you want me to say."
"What should I do?" Toph demanded. "I don't know if I should tell him or not. Probably not, right? I mean, he does have to get married to a Fire Nation girl."
"Right. You… shouldn't tell him."
Toph sighed. It was a sigh heavy with sorrow. "I know. Okay. I… I won't tell him."
Katara frowned. "Sorry, Toph."
"It's not your fault," she murmured. "Sorry for keeping you up longer. G'night."
"Good night, Toph."
Toph nodded, and left the room for her own.
Saturday night, Sunday night, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Every night, another date. One week left. No right girl.
Saturday's date wasn't until nighttime. Aang and Katara were off on some date of some sort, and Sokka was going out shopping. Toph had decided against going, and Zuko needed a break, however short, from life. He locked himself up in his room.
Once again, boredom set in, but Toph didn't want to go see Zuko this time. She was worried. She knew she liked him, and she didn't want to mess up the friendship, especially when she knew he had to marry someone else. She figured she'd just stay clear of him. She sighed, laying on her bed and closing her eyes. Her hair was down, laying all around her. It had gotten long. It was down to her mid-back.
She heard someone coming before she heard the knock, and she recognized the footsteps as well. As soon as he knocked, she got up, her plans of avoidance damned. "Hey," she murmured, opening her door.
Zuko frowned. "Toph, is something wrong?"
Toph frowned, her hand still gripping the door handle loosely. "What do you mean?"
Zuko frowned. "I feel like you've been avoiding me all week."
"Well, it's not like you've been around much," she grumbled. Her grip on the door handle tightened.
"Oh. Well, I'll be around until nighttime today. Do you mind if I spend some time with you?"
Did she? No. Should she? Yes. Different things. "'Course not." She stepped aside and let him walk in before closing the door. "What do you want, anyway?"
"I…" Zuko frowned. "I'm not sure. I was just feeling alone, I guess."
"Oh… me too."
"I hate being alone," Zuko murmured.
"Me too," Toph agreed.
Zuko sighed. "And I don't feel so alone with you."
It was just like before. Zuko had noticed that Toph's skin felt warm, and he liked that warm. Her words were, while sometimes harsh, always sincere. And her smile seemed special. She knew him, and he knew her. They weren't so different. They were the same.
He had noticed, after she left, how he missed her presence. And he'd been very aware of this all week long. He noticed that being away from Toph reminded him of being away from Mai, when he'd left her to join Aang so long ago. An ache.
And he'd known that he might end up doing something like this when he was with her again.
Which was why he had decided to stay away from her.
But these thoughts were distant now, as he moved closer to her again. He'd messed this up the first time—well, Makiki and his messenger had. He would get it right this time.
He leaned down and stared into her eyes. She could feel the sudden change in his mood, the longing, and her cheeks were pink again. He gently put his fingers under her chin and tilting her face up towards his. She didn't resist. His lips parted, and he moved closer to her. He hesitated an instant, his warm breath caressing her skin, her lips opening in expectation, before he closed the distance.
It was very different to kissing Mai. Kissing Mai had felt good. But kissing Toph didn't just feel good. It felt right. When he kissed Mai, he liked it. When he kissed Toph, it was more. It was like a part of him was there, and when their lips parted, it would be gone. He would never be complete without this. This was a connection, a lifeline—it was so much more than a kiss. Because it was right. It was perfect.
He opened his lips against hers, and she did the same. His hand moved up to cup her cheek, and hers moved forward to hug his neck. His other hand eventually went to the small of her back, holding her close although there was still distance between them.
Suddenly, Toph jerked back, severing this new and necessary connection they had formed. "Zuko," she gasped, blind eyes wide. "What are you doing?" Her hands pulled away from his neck, and onto his shoulders. She pushed him away.
His heart wretched. Rejection hurt. When Mai had yelled at him back at the Boiling Rock, it had hurt, but it was nothing to how this hurt. Toph pulling away her rosy lips from his, pushing him away from her. "I…" He frowned. What was he doing? Could he possibly explain this strange and new feelings to her? Didn't she feel them, too?
"You have to get married!" She yelled at him. "You can't kiss me!"
"But I don't want to!" Zuko burst out, clenching his fists. "I hate this!"
Toph grit her teeth. "It doesn't matter! You need to, to stay Fire Lord."
Zuko let out a growl. "I'd give it up. I don't even like being Fire Lord that much. I'd rather—" he cut himself off. He'd been about to say he'd rather have Toph than the nation, but if Toph didn't return these feelings, he couldn't say that. It was too much. "I'd rather have love than a nation. And I would trade it, I iwould/i, if it were only that."
"What?" Toph gasped, baffled. What had he said. "You would trade that for… me?"
Zuko grit his teeth and looked at the ground. After a moment, he finally whispered, "Yes."
Toph's heart skipped a beat. "Zuko…"
"But it's not just about me!" He complained. "I don't need all this power, and frankly, I don't want it. But it's not just me. It's everyone. It's the world. The elders want the war again, and there are enough citizens that it can happen again. What we did to the rest of the world was horrible. And five years hasn't been enough time for a recovery. If we attacked now—and no one would suspect it now, either—we would win. I can't give them that power. I can't…"
Toph listened in silence. "Wow. This is so much bigger than you, huh? I didn't realize… I thought we were the same… but you have so much more."
"Don't say that. We iare/i the same," Zuko snapped at her.
Toph sighed. "Why did you kiss me? If you knew all that?"
Zuko sighed. "I-I don't know. It just happened. It just had to happen. That's what it felt like. I couldn't help it. I didn't mean too… not completely. But I'm glad I did it. Well…" he frowned. "No. I'm not."
Toph's heart outright stopped.
"Because now I've messed with your heart, haven't I?" Zuko sighed, touching her cheek again lightly. "Now it's our problem to share."
"I don't mind sharing."
Zuko's lips curved slightly. "Toph… I really do care about you. I wish… I wish it wasn't this way. It's not right."
Toph nodded. "You have duties, Zuko. You need to rule this nation. You're the best for the job."
Zuko nodded, but sighed at the same time. "And I'll have to marry some faceless woman to do it."
"Maybe you'll grow to love her."
"And maybe your parents will recommend you marry a hermit," Zuko grumbled sarcastically.
"I hope not," Toph admitted. "Well, not unless you do get banished from here because you're not taking a wife, and become a hermit." She smiled slightly.
He laughed once. "Thanks."
"No problem, Sparky."
He smirked. "I… I should go. I need to speak with Makiki. About tonight's girl." He sighed.
"Oh. Okay. Bye then."
"Good-bye." Zuko paused by the door, then turned back and kissed her again, soft and chaste. "Bye," he said again, then closed the door.
She waited quietly until his footsteps were gone, and then she calmly walked over to her bed, laid her face in her pillow and cried.
There was a day left.
There was no date scheduled for tonight. They had given up hope. He wouldn't find her tonight. They were all the same.
Aang, Katara, and Zuko sat together in silence. "Zuko…" Aang sighed. "You want me to get an army together and help you take back the nation?"
Zuko didn't answer.
"You know what's funny?" Zuko whispered, so quiet that the other two almost didn't hear. "I really really like this girl. And she's got noble blood, too."
Katara and Aang both just stared at Zuko, then exchanged a glance. "So, why aren't you marrying her?!" Aang demanded.
Zuko put his face in his hands. "She's not from the Fire Nation."
Now, Katara and Aang were both confused. "Then, where?" Aang asked.
"The Earth Kingdom."
Katara's eyes widened. There could only be one real answer, right? How many other girls from the Earth Kingdom did he know? "Who?" She whispered.
Zuko didn't answer for a moment. "Toph."
Aang's eyes widened, and Katara's face fell. "Does she like you, too?" Aang asked.
Zuko frowned. "I think she does. She said that she'd marry me if I was a hermit in the Earth Kingdom. Does that mean she likes me?"
"Hard to tell with Toph," Aang laughed uneasily.
Zuko sighed. "I guess she'll get me then. At least I can look forward to that."
Aang sighed and leaned his head back. "That sucks. The elder's rules, I mean."
Zuko just nodded.
Katara let out a quiet sigh. "I… I gotta go. See you guys later." She bent down to kiss Aang before leaving the room.
She knew her way around the palace fairly well, and managed to find the room she was looking for relatively easily.
Now alone, Zuko sat in his room. It was sunset—his deadline was midnight.
There was a quiet knock on his door. "Who is it?" He asked. His voice was dead.
"It's me," the voice behind the door answered.
Zuko jumped to his feet and hurried to the door, throwing it open. "Toph," he whispered.
Toph walked into his room with a glare. "What's this about you giving up, huh?" She growled at him. "Why am I being told that you're not getting married at all?"
"Because no one is right," Zuko told her. "Well, no one from my nation."
Toph blushed. "Zuko…"
Zuko shook his head. "I don't know what else to do. I don't want to marry any of these women. They're all vain, and conceited, and gold-diggers, and… they're all wrong. There's only one noble blooded girl who's not like them. She's the only one I want."
Toph sighed and hugged him, pressing her face into his chest. He held her close, his hand stroking her hair. "I guess I'm just like all the other guys you've dated though."
She pulled away at this statement, glaring at where his voice was coming from. "What?"
"I'm too selfish. I can't even marry a girl for my nation. I can't do it. I'm too selfish."
Toph sighed. "Zuko… it's not your fault. I wouldn't be able too, either. I can't marry those guys to make my parents happy. Because they're not right either. I know what you mean. It's not selfish. And if it is, I'm selfish, too."
Zuko sighed. "I love you, Toph."
Toph's heart fluttered, and she smiled. "I love you too, Zuko."
Zuko smiled and pulled her head up to kiss her. His arms wound around her lower back, holding her close, while hers wrapped around his neck. Their lips moved together perfectly, a dance between one entity with two forms. The kiss completed them, connected them perfectly. Like the last piece of a puzzle. It just fit, and the gratification that you'd finally found the match was overwhelming.
Zuko pulled away finally, and brushed her bangs to the side. "Toph?"
"Yeah?" She whispered, her heart pounding.
"You still want to marry a hermit? Because I'll be available by midnight."
Toph smiled, but before she could answer, the door opened. This time, they didn't jump away from each other. Zuko loosened his grip on her, but still kept one arm wound around her waist as he turned to face this intruder. "Yes?" he growled, even after he saw who had interrupted.
Katara's blue eyes narrowed at his tone, but softened when she saw the way Zuko's arm was around Toph, and the way her cheeks were colored with a blush. "I… I need to tell you something."
"Yes?" Zuko pressed.
Katara took a breath. "Zuko, the requirement for Fire Lady is that she must be of noble blood."
"I know. What's your point?" His eyes narrowed.
She sighed. "As in, that's the only requirement."
Zuko blinked, not understanding.
"Zuko!" Katara groaned. "You're supposed to be smart! Don't you see? The only requirement is that she has noble blood! As in, she can be from any nation, as long as she has noble blood!"
Zuko's eyes suddenly widened as he understood her. Toph froze in shock.
"See? They never needed to say anything else. Every Fire Lord before just chose a woman from his own nation. It's never happened before, but it ican/i. I asked Makiki, and he said it was acceptable. Unusual, but acceptable."
"So… I can marry Toph, iand/i keep the throne?" Zuko whispered, voice quivering in awe.
"Yes. And you don't need to actually marry her by midnight, either. There just has to be a plan for marriage. You have to propose."
Zuko let out a breath, and turned to look at Toph before he looked back at Katara. He let go of Toph's waist, and turned away, grabbing something from his dresser. In the Water Tribes, they carved engagement necklaces. In the Fire Nation, they used rings. The ring Zuko had in his hand now was the ring his mother had worn, the ring Ozai had given her. Zuko gently took Toph's hand and bent down on one knee. "Toph… I know I'm not the hermit you were hoping for, but will you marry me if I'm still a Fire Lord?"
Toph smiled. "I don't know. I was really hoping for a hermit." She laughed. "But you know, I think me marrying a Fire Lord will piss my parents off even more." She paused. "But I wouldn't say yes just to spite my parents. And I won't say yes for your nation. But I will say yes for you. And for me. For us. Yes. I'll marry you. Of course I'll marry you, Zuko."
Zuko let out a relieved laugh as he slid the ring onto her finger. He got to his feet and kisses her lovingly. Aware of his audience, he made it quick. "Thank you Katara," he said. "If not for you… I don't know where I would be. I'm glad I invited all of you up here." He smiled.
Katara smiled as well. "I'm glad I could help."
"Come on, Sparky," she said, tugging his hand. "Let's go tell your elders the good news." She smirked wickedly as she tugged her fiancé out of the room.
Zuko followed her happily, his heart filled with delight. In his experience with high-class girls, he'd never found one like Toph. She had more than just nobility. She was kind and loving, honest and funny, strong and clever. She was exactly right.