Like the Sun Needs the Sky: Prologue
Today was an awfully slow day, slower than usual. It had taken the Earthbender an hour, maybe a few, to figure out why. Some well-worded questions and a few seismic vibrations, and she finally figured it out on her own. No one really told her anything anymore, even the important things, and Iroh never seemed to know much either. Perhaps it came with old age; just taking things as they came instead of being rushy and impatient like she was at times. Only certain things could make her act like a spoiled twelve year old again, and this was one of them.
Reportedly, the Fire Lord was coming - well, now he was here - to Ba Sing Se, on business of course. Supposedly, this business had a lot to do with the Earth King, whom was only recently returned to his rightful place on the throne. It had taken quite a bit of searching, but after a while, Toph, along with the rest of the Dai Li, had tracked Kuei down, wandering about the wilderness.
Now that he was back on his throne in the Earth Kingdom capitol, it was a good chance for Zuko to talk with him about various troubles plaguing the world, as they were the two most influential world leaders, and the Water Tribes were already wrapped up in rebuilding. Though Aang had been successful in finally ending the war, defeating Zuko's nutcase father (no offense to him, he came out alright in the end), it had proven to merely be the first of many steps. It'd been five years, and yet in some places, you could swear Zuko had only been crowned yesterday.
A little part of her was pissed of course. Again, no one had told her he was coming, and she had thought she of all people would have been one of the first to know. After uncle Iroh of course, and perhaps the two could have accompanied the Fire Lord to see the Earth King. He'd been kind of interesting, and Toph wanted to hear about his travels over the last few years. But instead, she was on patrol in the Middle Ring; if she found out he'd gone and seen the King before seeing her, he was in so much trouble. And he probably knew that too.
Since she was out and about already, Toph decided to do a little bit of shopping. She'd promised Iroh that she'd pick up a few things while on patrol that he needed, not for the Jasmine Dragon, but for around home. Heh, home; a long time ago she'd never call anywhere home, and now she had two. It was strange how things changed over the years, though in her opinion, she hadn't changed much at all, regardless of how much Iroh insisted she was 'blossoming into a lovely young woman' right before his eyes.
Quietly, she made her way through the streets, two Dai Li agents behind her on either side; she'd insisted she didn't need a personal guard or whatever, but she wasn't in the mood to argue today. Toph couldn't afford to explode at them, at least not here, as she and the Dai Li were a national symbol of sorts, of peace and the upholding of the law, though sometimes she was under the impression the symbolism only meant something to her.
Officially, she'd only assumed control of the Dai Li sometime last summer; after trials and testimonies and whatnot, she'd found it in her little stone heart to intervene and save every last one from their fate. She'd spoken for them and made a deal with the recently re-established Earth King; if she couldn't whip them into shape in three weeks, the King was then free to drop them all into the middle of the ocean via war balloon. Strangely enough, he'd agreed, and after several agonizingly long days and some horrifying Earthbending drills, they'd slipped silently beneath her command. But she'd made it pretty crystal clear too.
One toe out of line, and they were all getting tossed into the sea anyway, so they'd bloody better keep one another in line. Because she had no problems snapping each and every one of them like breadsticks and feeding their entrails to the tigersharks.
"Read this for me," she stated, handing a piece of paper to... whichever agent was to her left, her tone allowing no backtalk whatsoever. He took it wordlessly, and read it for her as she'd asked. Chopsticks, a new set of bowls, a bag of rice and flour, honey (he said it sweetened tea better than sugar, and Toph had to admit the old man had very pleasing tastes), and a new white lotus tile. Ah, right; she'd broken it on accident a few days ago. So off they went, gathering the things on the list. Naturally, the agents with her got the joy of carrying the things for her, as she was far too dignified now to do it herself. And she was pissed off anyway; the last thing she needed was to break something, as that would merely set her off.
Night began falling, the crowds beginning to thin out, and after finding a suitable replacement for the white lotus tile, the three headed to the new Dai Li base. Lake Laogai was of course destroyed, and Toph thought it a complete waste to rebuild it, even if it wouldn't take much time. It was too far away from the imperial palace for her liking, as she had every intention of being close to the Earth King, just in case he ever needed anything (and boy he needed quite a few things over the years), so she'd chosen a more suitable place.
The new building was a spin-off from the palace, on its grounds yet not a part of the main building. She'd Earthbended it into place in about eight, maybe ten seconds flat. If the Dai Li's loyalty to her had been shaky before then, such an act had certainly solidified their wavering alliance. It was mostly made of stone, with touches of metal here and there; Metalbending was still a new art, and true to her word all those years ago, Toph had never taught it to anyone, and was still the only Earthbender who could bend metal, much to the awe of the Dai Li.
It'd been almost two years since she had seen her friends. The last time they'd gathered together was for Sokka and Suki's wedding. Katara and Ty Lee had done a magnificent job with decorations and clothing choices, or so Zuko and Aang said, after she got them both to calm down long enough to describe the scenery to her. And of course, whatever fluffy silk-feeling crap they'd seen fit to put her in. Bridesmaid, her; who would have figured it? Zuko had told her she was beautiful then, which only earned him a snide retort and a firm kick to the shin. That was how she said thank you.
Thus the newlyweds had traipsed off to... probably Kyoshi Island, if Toph was to make a gander, to pass leadership of the Warriors to a fine new lady warrior (Toph's money was on Ty Lee), and then off to the South Pole to assist with the Tribe's restoration efforts. Aang and Katara were travelers now, like the good days before the comet arrived, so no one heard from them very often. Aang was still caught up in his Avatar gig, thus he had to visit the Fire Nation occasionally, and Katara had become a wandering teacher, telling stories of her time during the last year of the war, teaching children to read, and while in the North, Waterbender women how to fight with Waterbending and not just heal with it.
Nodding to a few passersby whom did so for her, Toph made her way into the Earthbent building, passing the front desk nonchalantly. Someone was in the chair, probably on record duty, and she heard the sound of papers ruffling before he stood and gave a bow. One of the newer additions to the Dai Li ranks, she could tell; his bow was awkward. "Good night, General Bei -"
Almost instantly she tensed at the beginning of her surname; so formal. He was definitely new. "TOPH."
"Er, yes. Good night, General Toph."
"Who's on duty for the night?"
"Lieutenant Meng." Well, she didn't trust Meng as much as she did Kyeong, but she had ways of dealing with traitors that seemed especially effective. That aside, there was no way she was missing out on sweet Agni-blessed sleep, a nice cup of white dragon tea (Iroh's latest specialty; it was a mix of ginseng, honey and peppermint), and a relaxing game of Pai Sho. She'd hated the game at first, when her tutors had sought to teach it to her, but uncle Iroh had made it much easier for her to learn. She could tell which tiles were which, because they had a special set of tiles that Iroh had customized himself. They were printed with the designs on the front so he could see them, and then engraved with them on the back, so she could see them through the tables. Strangely, she'd now beat him multiple times.
"Thank you. Keep an eye on him will you?"
"Of course. The Dai Li keeps an eye on itself at all times."
He was a good one; he would fit in just fine. Flicking her finger at the wall, she scribbled her name into the earth along with the time. She kept accurate records of who was serving and at what times, as well as where they were. It was easier for her to read it if it was on the wall, and also easier for her to detect any foul play; Earthbending left a small trail, and she knew immediately when someone was trying to dupe her. And he got a lovely surprise in return for his... flattery. ... the last one had been tied up and hung from the ceiling for a few hours. No one had yet dared to make the same mistake.
"She should be home soon, Zuko," he heard, somewhere to his right, but he didn't bother looking. If he broke his concentration so abruptly right now, he'd set the entire building ablaze. Good thing he was a Firebender then, but still, it was very disrespectful to visit your extended family and set his house on fire either way.
"Alright." A deep breath in, and he raised his hands over his head, bringing them together before him slowly and methodically, controlling the direction of his energies determinedly. Something about this particular exercise calmed him greatly, the whole reason he'd given it a try in the first place. It was his uncle's suggestion, something to do every morning and night to keep himself from going insane. No one could say being Fire Lord was an easy job; he found this one out the hard way very early on, and had talked to Iroh about various things that might help him cope with the stress.
It made him see his father in a new light, though he was still power-hungry tyrant scum. And besides, Ozai had never had to bring a hundred year war screeching to a halt almost single-handedly before either. Starting one was easy, ending it was the harder part; Zuko just supposed he got the short end of the stick, so to speak. At least he had friends and family that weren't crazy and did care enough to help. In the end it wasn't so bad, and he kind of enjoyed his newfound position, not for the power but because he knew he was helping people.
But the assassination attempts could go away now.
It didn't take her very long after that to get there, by which point Zuko was already in the front room, legs propped up on the table so she couldn't feel his vibrations. Wood left her somewhat blind, though there were parts of the apartment Iroh had lined with metalat the floor's corners, making it easier for her to 'see'. He wanted his presence to be a surprise for some reason; he knew she'd be very ticked if he'd come to Ba Sing Se and met with the King before he ever stepped foot in the apartment she shared with his uncle, so he'd never had any intention of seeing the King before them.
Though she too was busy at times, he felt a lot better about her living in Ba Sing Se with Iroh; knowing that there was someone he trusted there with his uncle had alleviated a lot of original worry, and so he felt he owed it to them anyway, particularly her. She'd done a lot for him over the years. A lot he felt he'd never be able to pay her back for, but the stubborn rock didn't want anything in return. Just his friendship.
"Uncle, I'm back," he heard, and he glanced up from the table. She sounded exhausted, with just a hint of irritation; he began to worry a bit. What if she knew he was in the city already? He'd told everyone to keep their traps shut! Heavily, she dragged herself into the apartment, setting some things on the table and then flopping over onto the floor on her back, and if she could see like other people, she'd be staring at the ceiling. Zuko stayed silent, choosing not to interrupt her just yet. The silence was comforting, and no doubt all of that would be shattered like a faulty mirror the moment he said something. His uncle was in the back, making her some of his specialty white dragon tea.
She hadn't grown much taller over the last year, but he wasn't blind to how much she had changed otherwise; she was filling out the same way Katara had started to a few years previous. She wasn't stunningly gorgeous or anything (like Aang had said Katara was, but Aang was supposed to think that), but he knew a woman when he saw one. She looked tired to him, sagging into the floor; of course she would merely vehemently deny this so he knew better than to ask, something he found endearing, something the both of them could understand.
Though he'd learned a lot since his father's defeat, he still had a habit of repressing his emotions; it was drilled into his head that emotion of any kind was a weakness, whether this was happiness, rage, or exhaustion even. But she had a lot to deal with, as did he; him, peace treaties and making sure the Fire Nation forces really did cease fire, and she working with the Dai Li and turning the traitorous rats (hadn't that once been him?) into a true force to be reckoned with. In his opinion, if anyone could do it, it had always been her, hands down.
It was a breath of fresh air to see her. Where everyone else had changed and moved on with their lives, she had remained something of a constant, and he frequently (albeit accidentally) compared her in his mind to an island in the middle of the ocean. He wondered what it was like for her, watching everyone around her change (or the other little islands sinking below the sea) where she had been here for the last five years straight, serving the Earth King as best she could, even before he came back.
And him too; she always had a bit of encouraging words (... harsh encouraging words, but after a few days of sulking he always saw how right she was in the end) and sound advice for him, if he would listen instead of freaking out (rebellion seige of Crescent Island anyone?). But even though he had his crown and was fixing the various mistakes his nation, his family, had made, he still felt like there was something missing. And inside he wondered if she felt the same way.
"Are you going to say hi, or just lay there like a lump of coal?" He couldn't help the few centimeters of smirk (or was it a smile?) that entered his tone.
She gave a slight start, sitting up and facing his general direction, following the sound of his voice. "Sunshine?" He let his legs slide off the table, placing his boots on the floor so she could see him better. She grinned almost ear to ear and scooted across the floor, hugging his ankle.
"SUNSHINE! I missed you! You blasphemous jerk, not telling me you were coming is a sin!" Her hand suddenly released his ankle, becoming the catalyst of a good hard Toph whack instead; she still hit hard, if not harder. And when had she learned what the word 'blasphemous' meant anyway?
"Ow, hey! I came all the way here to see you and you call me a jerk!"
"YOU BIG NINNY, YOU DID NOT!"
Ah, so she did know about his business meeting scheduled for the morning. "Er... sorry Toph. The fewer people that know I'm here, the better," he stated, sounding sincerely sorry. Not because his shin hurt now, but that was a good additional reason indeed.
"What, don't trust me now?" It wasn't that. It definitely wasn't that. She'd saved his rear on occasion, many an occasion; he trusted her as much as he trusted Iroh, but... well he was still having trouble trusting the Dai Li. Give 'em a few more years under General Toph's command, and they'd certainly be model citizens... or else. "Another assassination attempt, wasn't it? Let me at 'em, I'll break their necks!" At that, she stood and stubbornly returned to the door; Zuko had to scramble to catch the girl, who wasn't really a girl anymore, placing himself between her and the door. Placing both hands on her shoulders, he guided her back to the table and plopped her into a chair before taking a seat himself.
"Calm down, Hippie, and have some tea with me. It's been a while." Indeed; an entire year since he'd seen anyone in their little circle but Aang. Almost as if on cue, his uncle came in, placing a few glasses of tea on the table. Sadly for Zuko, by the time his golden gaze returned to her seat from his glass, she'd slipped out of her chair and was halfway across the room already. Luckily, he was faster than her in the wooden building, and he swiftly blocked the door from her. "You stay still or I'll really make you regret it." When had the smirk crossed his features? He could see her smirking too, and it never left their faces.
"Is that a challenge, Princess?" She always knew what buttons to push.
Even if the two weren't going to be calm, and instead chose to act like children, Iroh was content. Sipping his tea and watching the two chase each other around the apartment (both of them giving in to the desire to shriek on occasion, fueling the other's drive quite magnificently), he couldn't help but think how nice it was to have them both home again.
But he knew he was going to regret their game of squeal-tag in the morning.
Notes: I changed it a tiny bit, rewrote some parts, so hopefully it's a bit easier now. ^_^ As I said in the notes for the original versions, Zutarians may want to steer clear, because this is a ToKo, and I honestly don't care if you don't like it. The name is Ren, and I'm pleased to make this journey with you; please don't get too excited, I don't update very often, but I had an idea and thought I'd run with it while I could. Hm, I may actually get past chapter one this time, woo! I have part of chapter one and two in my mind (this is the prologue) and part of one written, so it shouldn't be too long for those now. Especially since my computer is broken and I have all the time in the world now! Yay! xD
Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy.