Title: The Art of Intervention
Author: Kyra Rivers
Rating: PG-13 (for swearing!)
Word Count: 3000ish
Warnings/Pairings: meh, this is as gen as gen could be.
Summary: "I am so glad we're friends, Toph," Zuko said, his tone deadpan. "You're just so encouraging and supportive. Especially when you physically tie me up and kidnap me."
Notes: Many thanks to my beta, the wonderful He Liwen, for letting me know when I suck. :P Written for the Avatar mini!BigBang on Livejournal.
Zuko was not exactly sure how he had gotten to… wherever the hell he was, but he did know one thing: it was entirely Toph's fault.
"Okay, seriously," Zuko muttered in what he intended to be a regal tone, but what turned out sounding whiny, as he stomped along behind Toph. "Where are we?"
"Not telling," Toph replied, and Zuko could hear the smirk in her voice.
"Toph," he said.
"Let me go."
"Toph," he growled threateningly.
She barked a laugh, saying, "Oh, it's adorable how you think you're intimidating."
Zuko gritted his teeth, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks in a familiar swell of frustration. He shifted uncomfortably against the rough rope around his wrists and winced, knowing that the knots were impeccable. If he could see, Zuko thought that he might have been able to plot an escape, but no amount of shifting had managed to dislodge the blindfold yet.
And he still had no idea what the hell was going on.
Toph had come to visit him in the Fire Nation about a week ago, right at the height of tax season. And yes, Zuko had been Fire Lord for five years already, but tax season was always hectic. This year was particularly bad, as multiple new policies were going into effect for the cycle and the financial crisis was only now beginning to regress. Zuko had spent most of the past two months sleeping in his office, nearly buried under various scrolls.
Toph arrived at midday a week before taxes were due, lanky in her womanhood but still covered in dirt. After exchanging cordial greetings, Zuko went back to his work as Toph sat back and listened to the ebb and flow of the day.
Sometime before dinner, during a rare moment when there were no advisors in the room, Toph asked, "Don't you have people who can do most of this crapfor you?"
"If I let other people do this," Zuko grumbled in response, the words familiar on his lips, "then it won't get done right. And I prefer to know the exact numbers I'm dealing with."
"Yeah, but don't you have like, other stuff you have to do?" Toph said, looking bemused. "You know, like sleep?"
"I sleep," Zuko replied succinctly. "And I eat, no matter what Katara's been saying. I'm just busy, and this paperwork has to get done by the end of this week, so there's really no choice in the matter."
"Hmph," Toph grunted noncommittally. Then, without another word on the matter, she slid off her chair and said, "Alright then. I'm going to go get dinner with Mai. Later."
That really should have been Zuko's first warning.
By the time the week finally ended, Zuko had fired three advisors, burnt half a bookshelf to the ground, and nearly given himself another topknot simply by pulling out his hair. He was exhausted by the time he managed to stumble to the evening meal, which was the first he'd been able to make in over two weeks.
Mai didn't even bother to hide her surprise, though given her personality it only showed in the way her eyebrows rose minutely. Sitting across from her in a remarkably pretty dress was Toph, who seemed to be actively giving Zuko a blind version of the stink eye. She held a cup of tea in her hands, and he could see the dirt caked around her fingernails smearing on the porcelain. The contrast was amusing.
"Are you still here?" Zuko asked, staring quizzically at the younger girl. He had assumed after she vanished from his study that Toph had left the capital, probably to run around with his uncle on some tea heist in the Earth Kingdom. Again. (Needless to say, that paperwork had been a headache, even after Iroh had gleefully provided a full confession.)
"No, I'm the ghost of Toph, who died from utter boredom when she came to visit her battle buddy and found a wasted shell of a bureaucrat instead," she replied sarcastically. Mai smirked behind her cup of tea.
Zuko blinked, raised an eyebrow and said, "So, that's a yes, then."
"Obviously I'm still here, genius," Toph said. "Are you done with your soul-crushing busywork yet? Because I only keep you around for sparring purposes, and I thought I had made it clear that you owe me at least one all-out brawl per visit. Fighting Mai just isn't the same."
Mai shrugged, nodding in agreement. "Either I use wooden daggers and she can't see them, or I use metal ones and she stops them in mid-air. Completely dull."
"Agreed," Toph stated, nodding sharply to Mai with the trained gestures of a noblewoman. Her head tilted toward Zuko again, and Toph said, "Last chance, Sparky. What are you doing tomorrow? For the record, the correct answer is, 'getting your ass beat, courtesy of Toph'."
Zuko sighed, kneeling on the cushion beside the table and dishing up some rice with vegetables. "I would, Toph, really, but I have at least three different budget meetings to oversee and there's a new policy that's been presented that I need to make edits on, and…"
He trailed off as he saw Toph's expression swiftly change from a grin to a glower, and he nervously added, "If I had known you were still here, I might have, um, been able to schedule something."
For someone who couldn't see, Toph definitely had glaring down to an art.
"Sorry?" Zuko finished unconvincingly.
Toph frowned for a moment longer before she sighed, rolling her eyes, and when she looked back up at him, her face was a perfect mask of politeness. "Whatever," she said dismissively. Turning back toward Mai, she said, "Why don't you pour Lord Firepants some tea, Mai? He must be thirsty."
"Of course," Mai said, her voice the perfect example of a demure lady.
And really, that should have been his second warning, but Zuko drank the tea anyway.
The next thing Zuko knew, his wrists were bound and his eyes blindfolded, and he was riding roughly on a wave of dirt that – judging by the way the wind was blowing his hair around – was going entirely too fast to be safe.
"What the hell, Toph—"
"Morning, Sunshine McChipper," Toph shouted over his complaints, sounding out of breath but jubilant. "I'd suggest not moving or I might accidentally smash your face with a rock."
And yes, Zuko was pretty sure Toph had complete control over the heap of moving earth under them, but he instantly froze anyway, lest she decide that she was feeling tired that morning.
"Excellent," Toph said entirely too brightly. "Now stay that way until we get there. I don't want to listen to your bitching the whole ride."
"Will you please untie me?" Zuko asked again, in what he thought was his least-whiny, long-suffering voice.
"No, we're not there yet," replied Toph, guiding him by the elbow. She had started to guide him more closely now that they were going through some denser foliage. He was relatively certain they were in a forest, and he supposed he should be a little grateful that Toph had kept him from tripping over his feet, but that thought was quickly banished when he remembered that she had kidnapped him.
He growled under his breath, muttering, "Oh, yeah, sorry, I forgot; we'regoing somewhere. Must have slipped my mind when you drugged me."
"Are you still bitter about that?" Toph asked, pulling him to the left to avoid some kind of obstacle in their path. "I mean, seriously. It's not like you have a headache or anything."
"Oh, I assure you, Toph, this entire trip is definitely giving me a headache."
"Well, yeah, but the stupid drugs aren't. So stop bitching."
"You drugged me!"
"Nooo," she said, dragging out the syllables and sounding so much like Azula when she was younger that Zuko visibly twitched. "Mai drugged you. I just took advantage of your unconscious state and brought you out here."
This knowledge brought Zuko up short, and he abruptly stopped walking. "Wait," he said, frowning. "Mai drugged me?"
"Of course she did," Toph said, sounding exasperated. She yanked on his arm, making him stumble forward with her as she walked. "Do you really think she would just let me put something in your drink and steal you if she wasn'tcomplicit in it? I mean, seriously, have you met Mai?"
"Wow, you're dumb."
"I am so glad we're friends, Toph," Zuko said, his tone deadpan. "You're just so encouraging and supportive. Especially when you physically tie me up andkidnap me."
"Thanks," Toph replied without a hint of shame. "And Mai did the tying up part, too. Did you know she knows over ten types of knots? She showed me, but we both agreed it'd be best to let her tie yours. Professional courtesy and all."
Zuko rolled his eyes underneath his blindfold, biting back his initial urge to scream at her. He was an adult now. Flipping out and screaming at people was not something the Fire Lord was supposed to do, even if he was being dragged against his will to the middle of nowhere by a tiny psychotic madwoman.
"Whatever," he snapped, clinging to his temper by a thread. "Regardless of thecircumstances, will you untie me now? I promise I won't firebend at you."
He was still considering just punching her in the face, but Zuko wasn't about to tell Toph that.
"You can't punch me in the face either," Toph stated immediately. Zuko was simultaneously bewildered by her uncanny ability to know what people were thinking and irritated that he had been found out.
"Fine," Zuko growled, vowing to find some other means of revenge. "Just untieme."
"Sure thing," she said. After a short snip, the ropes around his wrists fell away, and Toph continued, "We're here, anyway."
Zuko ripped off his blindfold the instant his hands were loose, and blinked in the early morning light. They were standing at the forest line, roughly twenty feet from the bank of a placid lake. He could see cliffs in the distance, but the landscape was mostly covered with a heavy fog, only to be seen when the peaks rose high enough to evade the dense cloud.
Toph had wisely stepped back the instant she cut his ropes away, and after a few tense moments of cautious waiting, she turned away from him and walked toward the water's edge. She brushed by a tree with hanging purple flowers as she stepped gingerly along the damp bank, causing a few petals to drift to the ground in a scattered array.
His anger momentarily forgotten in the calm beauty of the scene, Zuko simply asked, "Where is… here, exactly?"
"Some traditional meditation spot in the north," Toph answered, her hands tangled in her dark hair. What had once been braids had been jostled in the fast-paced travel, and Toph seemed to have given up the fight. Presently, she was using her fingers to smooth out her hair as best she could, leaving it hanging silkily down her back in a style Zuko had never seen on her. "Your uncle told me about it. He said something about the tranquil qualities of the air bringing about a rejuvenation of the spirit, or some nonsense."
Zuko stared, silently, as Toph finished with her hair and straightened, brushing away some excess dirt from her green traveling outfit.
She made a face at his lack of reaction, asking, "What? I didn't say it."
"No, I just…" Zuko trailed off, looking around at the surrounding area with tired eyes. He could hear a waterfall somewhere in the distance, and much closer a pair of birds engaged in a light series of chirps. He started again, "I think I've been here before. On a vacation when I was little."
"Bad memories?" Toph asked, tilting her head at him.
Zuko made a face, replying, "How messed up is my life that I say 'family vacation' and you immediately assume any memories I have are horror stories?"
Toph shrugged. "Most of your stories about being a kid end in some kind of bloodshed, so I figured it was solid guess."
"I suppose you have a point," Zuko said, sighing heavily. He looked over at the tree with the purple flowers and walked over, sitting down against its thick trunk. He said tonelessly, "I don't have bad memories of this place. I barely have any memories of this place. I just remember coming here before."
"Makes sense," Toph said. She came over to stand in front of him, twirling a cast-off flower around in her hands absent-mindedly. "Your uncle's the one who told me about it, after all. Maybe he brought you here."
"Why did you bring me here?" Zuko asked, his tone coming out a little sharper than he had intended.
The flower in her hands stopped spinning.
"You're working too hard," Toph replied, her expression serious in a way that Zuko rarely saw outside of a battle. "Everyone's concerned, you know. Katara keeps talking about how you nearly fainted that one time, and Aang and Sokka said that you ignored them when they tried to get you to back off a little. The only person you seem to listen to is Mai, and she says that recently you haven't even been doing that."
Zuko sighed bitterly, gritting his teeth, and he said, "I don't work because Iwant to; I have to—"
"No," Toph snapped, "You don't. Don't you get it, Zuko? You don't. You have plenty of people around to help you do taxes and policy nonsense and whatever else it is that you do. You are there to supervise, not actually doevery single job. Especially not now."
"Why not now?" Zuko asked, confused and frustrated. He could feel the tightness in his jaw and the heat on his cheeks, and there was just so much work waiting for him at home, as soon as Toph let him leave.
"Because," explained Toph, her lips twisted in a frown, "You are the Fire Lord. We all understood why you kept working so hard at first, because your dad was kind of a shitty example and you had a war-torn country to deal with. That make sense. But it's been five years, Zuko. The Fire Nation is doing fine—"
"Thanks to me!" Zuko interjected. "And all that hard work that I've been doing."
"Exactly," agreed Toph. Zuko blinked at her, baffled, and she went on, "And don't you think you deserve a break?"
Zuko made to say something else, but Toph waved a hand irritably and continued, "Actually, you know what? I don't care what you think. Because all of your friends – you remember your friends, right? – we think you deserve a break. So we're giving you one."
"So… that's what this is?" Zuko asked, unsure whether he was more confused or aggravated by the whole ordeal. "A forced little date with you so that I stopworking so much?"
"Oh please," Toph said, making a face at him. "This isn't a date. It's anintervention."
"An intervention?" Zuko repeated, incredulous.
"Yeah," muttered Toph, tucking the flower behind her ear and sitting down next to him. "As in, we're stopping you from getting so overwhelmed with pointless palace busywork that you eventually spontaneously combust. And no, you don't get a say in the matter."
Toph was facing him, eyes staring blankly at a spot somewhere to the left of his head. Zuko nearly snapped back at her, frustration bubbling just below the surface of his thoughts, but she glared at him with equal resolution. Age had shaped her face into something more angled than round, and her delicate features stood out even more in contrast with her fierce expression.
After a long moment, Zuko took a deep breath and leaned back against the tree. Quietly, he asked, "So, what do we do to… I don't know, reach spiritual rejuvenation, or… whatever?"
"I have no idea," Toph answered honestly, grinning. "But based on Aang, I'd say we should start of by doing nothing at all." She stretched her arms up, yawning widely, and added, "Besides, I'm exhausted from traveling all night. You're heavy."
"Well, maybe next time you won't drug me."
"Right, because asking you would have worked so well," Toph snipped back at him, rolling her eyes. She twisted and fell against him, instructing, "Scoot over," as she rested her head against his thigh.
Zuko watched her for a moment, still stunned by the concept of just sitting. No papers to manage, no advisors to listen to, and not a single meeting to attend. The sudden rush of responsibilities lifted off his shoulders was dizzying, and he didn't quite know what to make of it.
"Do you… want to talk, or anything?" Zuko asked, still grappling with the concept of doing absolutely nothing. It sat uncomfortably in his mind, unfamiliar and awkward.
Toph sighed dramatically, arching her neck to face him. "Okay, one," she said, sounding amused, "Since when have you been a good listener? We already tried that, and you were all, 'but Toph, we need to look for the Avatar' or whatever."
"Hey!" Zuko said, defensive but unable to keep from grinning at her tone. "I stand by that, you know. It was kind of a stressful situation."
"Oh, please, Twinkletoes was fine," Toph scoffed, her grin never faltering.
"Yeah, but we didn't—"
"And two," Toph interrupted, as though he hadn't spoken, "This is 'doing nothing' time. We can have a heart to heart later, after I beat you to a pulp in sparring. But right now? Now it's quiet time."
She closed her eyes in a decisive gesture, the smile still playing on her lips.
Zuko looked straight ahead, staring at the fog drifting slowly over the lake, fading away as the sun began to burn through the mist. The cicadas were quiet in the early morning, but the birds were beginning their morning song, and the breeze blew often enough to make the reeds dance over the water on the far bank.
He took another breath, and suddenly, the nervous energy he felt faded away, leaving just Zuko sitting there, staring at the calm lake in front of him.
But just for good measure, he said, "I still hate you, you know."
"Ah, see," Toph said lazily, grinning anew, "Now it's like a date."
A/N: Hope you enjoyed the story! Please take some time to review! :)