For Solace

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: AU, General Spoilers

AN: For AtLA Land's lottery writing challenge. Prompt was "Fire Nation."

Sequel to In Transit. Borrows some elements from Embers by Vathara.

She sees him bend fire.

Well, to be perfectly honest, she doesn't see anything; Toph can't actually see. But she knows he bent fire. She's there when it happens.

It's an accident. Really, it is. Just an accident. Well, it isn't, but at the same time, it is. He has no other choice. No other option. Death or bending. Bend or die.

In the end, it's no choice at all. Not in the slightest.

It's a crazy night. The moon goes red, and the world goes wrong. All sorts of things appear. Spirits. Ghosts. Whatever they are. They're suddenly there, and they're angry. Furious. Foaming at the fang.

Zuko curses his luck even as he wonders at the chances of this happening the first time he goes with Toph to an Earth Rumble alone. Uncle has always gone with them before, but he'd begged off tonight. Went to serve tea to the Bei Fong family again instead. And it seems like everything bad in this town happens when they go to see them, too.

He's already reaching for his swords before conscious thought enters into it, but Zuko wonders how much it'll help. He isn't even sure Toph beside him can do much with her earthbending. These are spirit-monsters after all; they're mostly incorporeal. They just walk through rock and earth and trees like Zuko walks through the air, and even the chi-laced stones that Toph sends at them do little. His metal dao do more but not much.

What they really need is to get away. A distraction. A plan. Damn, even someone who knows what they're actually doing.

What they really need is fire.

He's never fought something like this before, but Zuko knows the stories. He grew up on listening to his mom tell them for hours. He knows what needs to be done. What only he can do.

They're losing. Being corralled like ostrich-horses. Being driven back, further and further.

He glances at Toph out of the corner of his good eye. Sweat drips down her forehead, and her face is pinched. But he can see how her shoulders are starting to droop, and there's a tremble to her movements that isn't there normally.

Toph's already fought tonight in the ring, and she's only twelve years old. She's tired. Already faltering. And Zuko can't protect both of them with his swords. He's good but not that good. Not yet a master.

There's only one option left as they retreat further back once more. It's do or die time, and Zuko can't let her die. Zuko chooses to live.

He takes a deep breath then. And lets go.

Maybe she can feel his chi move. Perhaps she can just sense bending inherently. Or maybe she's simply not an idiot and can put two and two together.

Let's see.

A roaring heat that drives the monsters back screaming. Fire that appears spontaneously and out of nowhere to save them. Only two people present. One of them a confirmed earthbender.

It doesn't take a genius to figure this one out. It takes her less than a few heartbeats as the fighting reaches a lull, and he grabs her by the scruff of her shirt. Zuko pulls her along behind him as he heads off towards the city as quickly as he can.

Toph knows. She does.

"Sparkles," she says then and in a tone that makes him want to run even faster, "you've got some explaining to do."

"Later," he pants as they flee for their lives. "When we're not being chased by monsters."

Even in the semi-dark, he can tell that she's not happy with his answer. Especially not when she glances at him with unseeing eyes narrowed and funny look on her face. But she still allows it; it's hard to argue when they're running at top speed. Not exactly the best time for tea and conversation.

They make it back to the shop without another word, but it's obvious that Toph is merely biding her time. His uncle is back when they walk in, but his relieved smile slips away with one glance at Zuko's face. They've prepared for this eventuality. Prepared to flee if needed. But Zuko doesn't want to leave. He doesn't want to start over yet again. He doesn't want to lose what they've gained.

Comfort. A quiet life. Other things.

Toph is twelve years old. She's loud and brash and even irritating. She does her bending like most people breathe and constantly uses it against him. She calls him that stupid nickname and punches him all the time. She's annoying. She's such a pain.

She's also the closest thing to a friend he's ever had, and Zuko really doesn't want to lose that. He can't lose it. He won't.

Iroh brews tea and sets it out in silence. Toph is settled into her chair, foot tapping against the ground. But she hasn't run away screaming yet. She hasn't smashed him into tiny Zuko-bits. She hasn't called the army. She's just sitting there. Waiting.

It only takes a few minutes to catch Iroh up to speed, but then, it gets to the really awkward part. The part involving fire, and Toph turns to Zuko. Zuko sends a pleading look at his uncle. Iroh clears his throat.

"My name isn't really Mushi-"

Toph snorts. "Yeah. Kind of figured that one out a while ago. Tell me something I don't know." She crosses her arms over her chest.

Iroh offers a tight smile that she can't see. It's hard at the edges, but he's trying his best to be pleasant in a situation that could end very badly. Like with rocks and flames and liberal amounts of blood.

"I'm not Mushi," he repeats and pauses to take a deep breath. "My name is Iroh, and this is my nephew Zuko."

She puzzles over that for a second. Zuko practically sees the wheels turning in her head. Hears her repeating it over in her mind and out loud.

"Iroh and Zuko…"

He can see when she makes the connection. Toph is highborn, a noble. She might try to hide it, but certain things always will out. She's also Earth Kingdom, but she's educated. She knows those names; she knows exactly who they are.

Zuko and Iroh aren't very common names, even in the Fire Nation. And everyone the world over has undoubtedly learned of the oh-so-tragic deaths of the prince and his uncle the general. Only, they aren't quite dead. Just as Toph so very clearly realizes.

She sucks in a gulp of air, and Zuko can't help but tense beside her. But she doesn't do more than lift her eyebrows nearly to her hairline and take a second or two to blindly gape at them.

"Woah." Toph lets out a soft whistle. "That's… It's… You certainly don't pull your punches, do you?"

Zuko's mouth opens and closes like a very peculiar eagle-fish. Words have failed him for the moment. Failed him so completely that all he can do is trade an astonished look with his uncle. Of all the possible scenarios that went through his head over the last few months, this isn't one. He expected shouting. Accusations.

Not surprise and nonchalance. Like it's every day that she learns her newest companions are Fire Lord Sozin's heirs. Ho hum. Nothing new there.

"Indeed, we do not," Iroh manages after several heartbeats. He shifts in his seat like he can't decide if he should relax or not.

She shakes her head. "I knew you two were hiding something, but I figured you were just on the run."

"That is true… after a fashion," Iroh acknowledges. "My nephew and I… We wanted a different life. A quieter life. Away from battle and bloodshed."

"I'm not sure you got that."

Toph lets out a laugh then. One that immediately makes the tension drain from Iroh's frame. Zuko, however, only feels more awkward. More incensed. More… confused.

"How can you joke about this?" he demands then.

Her head whips over. "What did you expect?" She asks with a tap of her finger. "Screaming? Fist fighting?"

"Yes," he shoots back honestly. "Something more. Something… else."

"Nephew," Iroh begins, but Toph nudges him with her foot.

"No, I got this one." She turns back to Zuko. "Geez. It's not that big of a deal. So what if you've got some skeletons in your closet?"

"It is a big deal," Zuko insists with a wave of his hand and trickle of sweat down his back. "You should be furious."

"When am I ever really that mad?" she questions flippantly. "And what do you want me to do? Beat you up?"

"I don't know." He grabs his hair and comes this close to pulling. "Something. Anything. You should care about this. Not shrug it off!"

Toph sighs heavily. "Sparkles, I disobey my parents, sneak out at night, and fight big, sweaty men for money. Do you actually think I'd care if you bent air, much less fire?"

"But we're firebenders!" He repeats, "Firebenders! We're of the royal family! We're at war with you!"

She jabs a finger right in his chest, and Zuko can't help that he flinches as the other hand comes near his face. Fortunately, he catches himself before he jerks back and retaliates. Something flashes across her face then, but her mouth firms.

"Not with me, you're not," Toph tells him. "I might be earth, but that doesn't mean I'm Earth Kingdom. I don't have to follow along with them. I don't have to jump when they tell me to or fight who they say. Nobody's the boss of me but me."

"I… But… We…"

There just aren't words to express what he wants to say. He wants to believe her. But he just can't. It's too difficult. Too insane.

"Nephew," his uncle inserts then, and he puts a hand on Zuko's clenched fist.

"But she-"

Iroh cuts him off, "Nephew. Please. Just listen."

Zuko stares at him, and his eyes flicker with hope and almost-betrayal both. With a cautious sense of optimism mixed with outright fear. With everything he's felt since they fled the ship and into their new lives. As though he's just waiting for it all to crumble down around him but wants desperately to enjoy life while it lasts.

And like he has for the last few months, Iroh smiles and bears with it the best he can.

But this time, they have a witness. One who finally understands the truth.

"Look," Toph interrupts, and she gives the table a shake until they look at her. "You guys left the Fire Nation; I won't pretend to understand why. But you left. Obviously want nothing to do with them. Why can't I be the same? Why do I have to agree with the army or my parents or whoever?"

Zuko swallows. One of Iroh's hands is tight on his shoulder, and the other is on his wrist. But his touch is warm. Gentle. And the fact that turned as he is, his back is to Toph says more than any words ever can.

"You really don't care?"

The question is more tentative than he'd normally like, but it's an honest one all the same.

She jerks her head at Iroh, but he simply lets out a breath.

"He finally gets it." Toph grins. "Of course, I don't. You did sort of save us both from monsters. That can make me forgive just about anything." She elbows him, but it's not as hard as usual.

Part of Zuko makes him dodge automatically. But another part just marvels at it all. At the fact that for once, something's gone right. That things have been going right for a while. That perhaps this is what it's like to be happy. Maybe. If he squints, turns his head to the side, and sort of leans to the left.

Toph knows but doesn't care.

Ever Hopeful,