Title: Relative Misery
Universe: Avatar the Last Airbender
Character/Pairing/s: Zuko, Toph, Ozai, Azula (mentions of Katara)
Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers for the end of the series
Word Count: 1,485
Summary: Zuko and Toph commiserate a little. Zuko wins.
Dedication: sinonymity's thank you fic for donating to my cause! IDK what happened between starting this and finishing this. But hey, Toph is in it.
A/N: It's 1:30 in the morning and I am in food coma, okay.
Disclaimer: No harm or infringement intended.
During the third official month of Zuko's post-war reign as Fire Lord, the door to his office is suddenly and violently thrown open without warning one day, with enough force that he first suspects an invading army is attempting to stage a coup on the other side. The ensuing bang said door makes when it hits the inside wall of his chambers results in the young Fire Lord irreparably smudging the ink on the official decree he is in the middle of signing with an angry, ugly scritch.
"Asylum!" a voice demands. "I can get some of that here, right?"
He realizes then that it isn't an invading enemy after all; it is something far, far worse. He winces as he sees a familiar tiny form stroll through the open portal immediately after the heavy door's untimely demise, every part of Toph coiled with a dangerous sort of irritated tension. The Fire Lord's innate sense of self-preservation tells him to tread carefully.
"Well?" the Earthbender demands after a beat, huffing hair out of her face and crossing her arms as she looks at him expectantly, waiting for an answer. "Can I asylum here or not?"
He blinks. "I don't know how we do that. But I can look up the official policy if you want."
He coughs. "Though if you want to stay here that's fine too." Pause. Frown. "But I thought your parents were visiting."
She gives him the duh face as she plops onto a nearby duvet. "That's why I need a place to crash. They drive me crazy."
His eyebrows dart up. "Really? I thought they seemed nice." From what he can recall of them anyway; he'd met so many people at the peace treaty signings over the last few days that they've all kind of blurred together to form a single entity of smiling, obsequious politics that makes his head start to ache just trying to remember it all.
"Are you kidding me?" Toph throws her arms up in the air in outrage. "Being stuck listening to Katara monologue about morality is less aggravating than dealing with my family."
He looks skeptical. "They can't be that bad."
"Every time I try to talk to them it goes from barely civil to a psychotic bloodbath full of death and violence in like, three seconds. You have no idea what that's like."
Zuko bitchfaces at her because he actually does, thank you very much. But then he remembers that she can't actually see it, so after a minute, he sighs and puts his quill down instead. He's learned enough about girls from Mai to know when a woman is talking about something that's supposed to be about her and not anything or anyone else. "I thought you guys were talking. Katara said you were talking. She said she wrangled…stuff."
Toph looks disgusted. "Katara needs to mind her own damned business. Ambushing me in a dark alleyway and dragging me back to meet my folks for her heartwarming reunion fantasy is not what happened."
Zuko winces. Katara does tend to be kind of heavy-handed. It's probably why the world fears her. That and beating Azula up maybe.
"So what did happen?" He's almost afraid to ask, but Fire Lords are supposed to be tough and scary and they shouldn't fear the talking. Even if the punching is so much easier than the talking.
Toph twitches slightly. "So my skin's a mess, I haven't been taking care of myself properly, and have no business traipsing around the world like a common hoodlum."
Zuko wants to say, 'What, that's it?' because hey, it sounds startlingly, simply, thankfully mundane, the kind of thing he might wish for after all this, after the politics and the intrigue and having to look the families of people the Fire Nation has killed in the eye day in and day out.
Besides, it's not like anyone in her family has actively tried to kill her. But he also realizes that maybe he'd like to live to see a fourth month in his post-war reign, so he doesn't tell her these things. He says, "That's just what parents are supposed to do, isn't it?" instead. It seems about right; the kind of thing he hears normal parents say to their kids all the time. He can't say he knows for sure though.
Toph makes a frustrated noise in the back of her throat and choking motions with her hands. "They want me to go home. There's this nice boy they think I might marry in a couple of years if I can get the right tutors and catch up with all the school I missed last year. His family owns a cabbage farm. Apparently the industry is booming."
Zuko looks surprised. "Cabbages? Really?"
The frown she throws Zuko's way tells him that wasn't the response she was looking for. He coughs and sits up a little straighter. "That sucks," he corrects.
Toph picks at her toes on the duvet and sulks. "Worst family ever."
"But still," he adds, because apparently that self-preservation instinct isn't really as strong as he'd thought it was (he thinks he probably inherited his mother's strain of it or something), "at least you know they care about you."
She looks incredulous, and it makes the ground tremble under her just a little bit. "So they show it by criticizing everything I do?" She pulls her knees up to her chest and frowns at Zuko balefully. "You suck at this, man."
Zuko scowls back, even though she can't tell he's doing it. "Just try to think about things from their perspective. They care, so they worry. They want what's best for you, even if what they think is best is obviously wrong."
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" She sounds wounded and petulant, and for the last three months Zuko has had to be the Fire Lord and not a kid anymore, and he doesn't have the time or the energy for this.
And his head is starting to hurt too, which says a lot because last night he managed to stave off all headaches up until the Fire Nation's senior military council had started talking about continued occupation of certain Earth Kingdom territories for the next ten years because they're resource rich and the Fire Nation needs the funds for rebuilding (blah, blah, blah).
"Look," he says, trying to stay patient, "they're your family and they're worried about you. It could be worse."
She snorts. "They want to marry me off to a cabbage farmer. I'm pretty sure that's the worst thing ever."
At this point Zuko decides that patience probably won't work after all. He squares his jaw abruptly, puts away his papers, and stands.
Toph frowns. "What? Where are you going?"
He walks across the room and pulls her from her seat. "I still owe you a magical life-changing field trip, right?"
She lights up at the prospect of a little distraction. "Aw, Flamey-pants, are you offering to take me somewhere nice?"
He doesn't answer as he guides her out the door.
As it turns out, it is not somewhere nice.
It is the Fire Kingdom's maximum security prison facility. It is dark and cold and underground, surrounded by steel cages and iron doors.
On one side of the corridor they are standing in, they can hear the distinct strains of Azula sing-songing something sweet and high and very clearly all about how she's going to rip Zuko's head off of his neck with her bare hands one day, and wear it as a hat to her next big beach party.
On the other side of the facility, Fire Lord Ozai glares at his son through the cell bars and decries him as the traitor of the Fire Nation, as the one true shame of his life. "It would have been better if you'd never existed," he murmurs, voice low and dark and full of grief.
Zuko stands in front of the cells holding his sister and his father and crosses his arms, somehow remaining stoically impassive, or rather, wearily resigned. "So," he starts to Toph after a moment, conversationally, and offers her a tired huff of laughter, "you remember my family, right?"
Azula chirps about crushing his bones with her shoes.
Eventually, Toph slumps a little. "I think I'm going to ask my parents if they want to meet for dinner," she tells him, eventually.
Zuko shrugs. "I mean, only if you want to."
Toph wordlessly punches him in the arm before trudging back up to the prison entrance.
Zuko slowly follows after her, the strains of Azula's threats and the grumble of his father's vitriol echoing through the tunnels behind him. Absently, he wonders what it must feel like when your biggest concern in the world is cabbages (nice, he imagines that it's nice), and rubs at the spot on his arm where Toph had hit him just now. It will probably bruise in the morning.
He figures it's just one more to add to his collection.