When Zuko was still young and (more or less) innocent, his Mother told him two things that could apply to the situation at hand. The first one was about compromise, the second one was when he was asking her about what he should do with his crush on Mai.
Compromise was something Ursa taught him when his fights with Azula began to get out of hand – instead of sibling rivalry, which he'd learn were usually friendly at most times, they flat-out fought eachother, kicking and screaming and burning up the garden. That last one only happened once¸ before their mother descended on them. The Fire Lady sat both of them down and forced them to compromise.
If Zuko really wanted to, he could look up and meet Toph's sightless eyes in the mirror's reflection. But he didn't want to. He wanted to keep staring at his hands, pretending that she wasn't right behind him. Pretending that she would forgive him, that she wouldn't care, that they could go right back to the battle-couple they sort of were.
But all of that would require pretending that Zuko was not currently the Fire Lord, and that he was not being pressured into a political engagement by his advisors and the foreign diplomats. Meanwhile, those two groups were at odds with each other. The advisors wanted him to marry someone from the Fire Nation, preferably a woman of noble birth. They quite liked the idea of him marrying Mai, who he still spoke to and spent time with on occasion, as if their shared past relationship equaled a wonderful idea. The diplomats and foreign advisors were pushing for a wedding to someone (still, of noble birth) outside of the nation, arguing that a "Foreign bride would never allow another attack on her homeland."
Toph crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
Mai didn't want to marry him. And Zuko didn't want to marry her, either. That relationship had ended, even if their friendship hadn't. Didn't he, a few years back, argue that some laws needed to be changed? Some decrees and rules needed to be bent and altered, back when he was sixteen years old and when most people believed that he could change the Fire Nation for the better.
Not all people believed that now. Some believed that he was harboring Ozai instead of keeping him a prisoner; others considered his mother (who spent summers in the Fire Nation Capital with him) a traitor. Even more remembered him as the exiled prince who couldn't be trusted, and that he was far too young to rule an entire nation.
The advisors didn't like Toph. Neither did the diplomats, minus one of the younger diplomats from the Northern Water Tribe who liked her a little too much for the Fire Lord's taste. She was brash, brutally honest, and always knew when they were lying. She unsettled them. They were afraid of her.
"I don't care what they say." He said finally, fed up of the silence.
Toph snorted. "I can tell when you're lying, Princess."
"I don't want to care what they say, Toph!" Zuko spun on his heel to face her, even though she'd be able to read his emotions no matter what. "But the trade routes with Ba Sing Se are being sabotaged by those sand ninjas and a good portion of the Fire Nation will be even more displeased if I married—married you—"
Toph glared. To anyone else, it would be a little unsettling to see such a look on someone's face that wasn't directly at you, but she was blind. Zuko was used to her not meeting his eyes, because she simply couldn't. "I'm not worth marrying?"
Zuko's jaw dropped. "No, it's not that, and I thought you didn't want to get married!" And because even the foreign advisors wouldn't like that. Toph was violent. They all believed that she'd condone an attack on the Earth Kingdom (even push for it, maybe) if there was a good reason to. In reality, she and Zuko both had seen the horrors of the war and the hopelessness in people's eyes (well, Toph hadn't seen it, but it was there) to know that another war was a very, very bad idea. The advisors weren't easily swayed.
"They want some quiet, agreeing floozy to be your bride." Toph spat on the ground.
"That's not all they want. A Fire Lady is supposed to be respectable and good with laws and justice. She's supposed to be able to handle the courtly parts of everything, too, and sometimes stand in as ruler when the Fire Lord can't or if he dies, or…" He trailed off, and ran a hand through his hair. He decided he needed to cut it soon, or he was going to look just like Ozai. The idea was less than desirable.
"That's not what your oh-so-wise advisors want." She paused, and her toes curled. "Why did you tell them to bring in that Ji girl or whatever?"
Zuko fumbled for words. She's the daughter of a high-ranking official. I couldn't offend him. Sounded stupid. He wasn't planning on accepting that engagement. He was planning on telling Toph that she was visiting and that he would turn her down. He'd turn every girl down, everyone but Toph. Not that he'd say that last part out loud. Toph wasn't one for romantic sap.
"I – I…" She'd know if he lied. "I didn't want to offend her father! He's Jiang's brother – I couldn't just… just say no…"
"Yes, you could have." She snapped. She stomped forward, leaving cracks in the stone where she stepped, unconsciously earthbending. "It's not too hard to go, 'oh, no thanks, I'm not interested in marrying some stupid, well-bred girl!" She was nearly shaking with fury. Zuko wondered if he should be afraid right now.
"I can't keep offending everybody!"
"No, what you mean is that I can't keep offending everybody! Spirits, your advisors need backbones! If they can't handle me, what makes them think that they could handle anything else, let alone an entire nation ! They're all just trying to rule through you!"
"They're afraid! With good reason!"
Toph stepped back, her fists clenched at her sides. The stone cracked a little more underneath her feet, and Zuko was immensely glad that they were on the ground floor. "No, Princess. You're afraid, without good reason. You're the Fire Lord. You can't be a puppet." She punched him in the arm. "Toughen up, Sparky." She took a deep breath. Zuko prepared himself for more shouting, but she let out the breath and quieted, obviously trying to get her temper under control.
The Fire Lord rubbed at the spot on his arm where she hit him, absentmindedly knowing that he'd have a bruise in a little bit. Toph was strong for her size. She was a whole head shorter than him, and he always had to bend down to kiss her, except when she gave herself a lift with the earth itself. She was widely acknowledged as the world's strongest earthbender and only metalbender, but most didn't believe it until they saw her in action. She was blind, short and skinny, by appearances everyone thought she was a weakling. It didn't help that she was pretty, too, when she decided that actually brushing her hair and washing her face was necessary.
"I'm not a puppet."
She snorted again, and began to walk toward the door, her muddy footprints blessedly clear of new cracks beneath them.
"Where are you going?" He was suddenly worried. He didn't want to leave this argument at that. She had to forgive him, to stay. He needed her to stay.
"I don't know." She shrugged. "Out to destroy some of your property."
"Toph…" What could he say? She visited more often than the others, stayed longer than the others did, even during the week-long Peace Festival held every year in the capital since the war ended. She lived the closest, since Sokka and Suki lived in the South Pole, and Katara and Aang were travelling the world, helping anyone and everyone while maintaining peace. Ty Lee, who was more Zuko's friend than Toph's, lived on Kyoshi Island, and Mai was the other closest, but they weren't nearly as close as they used to be. But she was Toph. "The last thing you'd want would be to be a ruler's wife." She wouldn't want that. She'd hate that, being just some wife, even if they were meant to be able to rule in place of the Fire Lord at times.
The earthbender he knew wanted to be away from courts and the drama that came with them. It was amazing, he thought, that she'd stayed for so long. He didn't want to ask her to marry him if she was going to wind up hating her position and resenting him (and herself) for getting into such a thing years later. He was pretty sure that she didn't really want children, either. Zuko wasn't sure of that himself. He was a little too afraid that he'd wind up like his father. (No matter how much Katara and Aang argued otherwise.)
"I just… I don't want…" Why was he so horrible at this? He was horrible at friend things and horrible mushy lovey dovey stuff. "I don't want you to say yes and wind up hating me for it."
Toph stayed very still, standing in the doorway. "You want to marry me?" She sounded almost surprised, mixed in with a bit of amusement and sarcasm. Or maybe sarcasm was a natural tint to her voice.
"Well, yes! But it's not—you wouldn't…"
"Wouldn't what? I could handle court life and lies. I can tell when people are lying." She didn't turn around, still. Zuko wished she should. Her eyes didn't show sight, but they still showed emotion and truth in them. He walked over toward her, taking care to step around the cracks.
"I know you could handle it, Toph. I just didn't want…"
She turned around then and gave him a shove backwards. "Idiot. What makes you think that I'd have to give up everything to be your wife? What makes you think," she poked him in the chest, pushing him a step back. "that I'd willingly give up those things to play house?"
"You can't live in the Earth Kingdom and be the Fire Lady!" It wasn't just because the advisors and everyone else in the Fire Nation would see something weird and wrong about that, it was that sounded absolutely ridicules on its own.
"It's not too hard to go between here and home. It's only a weeklong journey."
"A week, Toph, and when would you be…" He trailed off. Toph smirked.
Compromise. She was going to compromise. Zuko wanted to smack his forehead.
"I'll spend a few months out of the year in the Earth Kingdom. Teaching and training future earthbenders." She yawned. "And metalbenders."
"And maybe… I could stay with you for those months."
She cracked a smile, finally. "What's your excuse going to be?"
Tentatively, he reached forward and cupped her cheek. He ran his thumb across her cheek and smiled, just a little bit, when he felt her tense. "I don't need an excuse. They can go eat a platypus-bear for all I care."
Toph's nose wrinkled, but she was smiling. "Then I'll stay here for a few months, too."
"And when things are dangerous." He leaned closer.
"Or when there are disputes with the Earth Kingdom." She stood on her toes.
"A foreign bride would keep a lot of that at bay." His lips just brushed her's.
He knew it was the wrong thing to say when she pulled away and shoved him off. "I don't want to marry you if it's just because I'll appease the Earth King." She snapped, glaring off at some place behind him.
His jaw might as well have hit the floor as she crossed her arms, her pale green eyes narrowed. "It would do nothing but anger them! I don't want to marry you because you're of noble birth and from the Earth Kingdom!" He was more angry than surprised. They'd been together for nearly two years, and friends for three before that, and she thought that he'd sink that low?
"Then why? Why me, why not Sugar Queen or Miss Gloom-and-doom?"
"Because you're you!" He shouted, grabbing her by the shoulders. "Because you're sarcastic and snarky and annoying and rude, because you like sparring and fighting and you're brutally honest! Because you downright don't care what people think of you, because you're Toph and because I love y—"
She gripped his shirt, and for half a second he thought, oh spirits, she's going to break my jaw, before her lips smashed into his, her hand still clutching his shirt. He was too astonished to react for a moment, before her hand relaxed and he returned the kiss.
She pulled away, and he, embarrassingly, followed her for a second before he realized what he was doing and his face flushed.
"You need to watch your temper."
Despite himself, and the conversation, he laughed. "Is that the pot calling the kettle black I hear?"
"Is that the princess mouthing off to her prince?" She grinned. It seemed to light up her whole face. "You need to talk less, too. You sounded like an angry Sweetness for a moment, there."
Deciding to ignore the jab, he pecked her on the lips and grinned. "So, marry me? If not because you want to, you should because it will make the advisors hate me more."
"I don't know." She stepped backwards, smirking at him. "If you can catch me, maybe I'll answer." She then she was out the door, her cackle-like laughter trailing behind her. Zuko gave chase instantly, a combination of annoyed and amused at his lover's antics.
He chased her through the courtyard, around the turtle-duck pond and through a few of the larger hallways before he ran out of breath at the fountain that Aang and Toph had built a few years earlier. Distantly, his arm ached from where Toph hit him earlier, and his lungs were screaming for air, but he still smiled. Toph wouldn't make catching her easy. She didn't at first, when they started their odd coupley dating whatever-it-was.
"Just come here and let me catch you!"
She walked into the courtyard, laughing. "Nothing's every that easy, is it, Sparky?"
"Just imagine the look on Sokka's and the advisors faces." He sat on the fountain's edge, smiling toward Toph, meeting her eyes, even though she couldn't meet his.
Considering this, she walked closer, her hand on her chin, pretending to stroke a beard that she did not have. "I'll consider it."
"But you don't become a housewife. I can promise you that."
"Am I allowed to beat up the advisors?"
"And any creepy guys who want to marry off their daughters to you?"
"Wonderful! One more condition." She didn't wait for a response besides a worried nod. "No big fancy wedding with flowers and declarations of love. And I don't want to tell Aang and Katara for a while."
"No Aang or Katara?"
"And, one more thing."
The Fire Lord watched his lover warily. "Okay…"
She spun a little farther away from him. "I want a real proposal, Princess Sparky."
He blinked. "You hate mushy lovey stuff."
A wicked grin appeared on her face. "I do. But I want to hear every little thing you like about me." She chuckled and sat on the fountain's edge. "Better go retrieve that ring under your bed."
Of course she knew, Zuko told himself. You can't hide things from Toph. "I'm not going back and leaving you time to run off." He walked over toward her and knelt at her side. He grabbed her hand and held it with both of his hands, grinning up at Toph who was uncharacteristically red. "Toph Bei Fong, I love you. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wi—"
"No, no, no, Sparky." Toph cut him off, still grinning wickedly. "I want to hear everything."
The Fire Lord sighed, torn between being amused and annoyed before he decided on amused. She wasn't going to let this go – she wanted his pride as well as his proposal. "Toph Bei Fong," He started again.
"I love the way you smile, I love how you get mad when people forget you're blind, I love how you keep your hair short, I love how you hate help even when you know you need it, I love how proud you are, even if it borders on arrogance, I love your temper and your spirit, I love every little thing you do, be it feed the turtle ducks – no, don't lie to me, I've seen you – or yelling at my advisors.
"Is that enough, yet?" He asked.
She shrugged. "For now."
"Then would you do me the honor of being my wife?"
"I guess." She said, pulling her hand from between his and laughing. The unromantic answer only cemented Zuko's belief that the proposal had been mostly for her to have a little power, maybe a small bit for some other reason. Except she had all the power, maybe not over the Fire Nation, but over him, certainly.
Zuko grabbed her hand again and pulled her into a deep kiss. "I love you, you know." He told her once they pulled away for air. Joy bubbled up through him and he laughed, and then she was laughing too, and the laughter echoed through the gardens.
"Really?" She smirked again, breathing heavily. He tucked a lock of her black hair behind her ears, and she added, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "I hadn't noticed." And she grabbed his shirt again and pulled him in for another kiss.
Author's Note: Obviously, this is AU as of the Korra series.
But... but... it's Toko!
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