DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, NOR DO I CLAIM ANY RIGHTS TO IT, ANY OF THE CHARCTERS, OR LOCATIONS IN THIS FAN FICTION STORY. I ONLY OWN THE PLOT.
"Toph! Where have you been?" asked Zuko rushing to her. He took her arms and examined her intently.
"Relax. I just went for a walk around town. I can take care of myself you know," she said trying to wriggle free from his grasp.
"You left your guard behind and you didn't tell anyone where you had gone. I was just... well, worried," he said and let go of her. Toph pretended to smooth the wrinkles of her gown feeling rather awkward. Under normal circumstances, she would be thoroughly vexed at having someone worry so much about her, she would have thrown a mad fit! But coming from Zuko, it wasn't the same. It was... sweet.
"Well, I'm here now so don't worry about me Sparky. I'm a big girl you know," she said with a smile and punched his shoulder then went up to her room. Zuko rubbed his shoulder with a smile as he watched the young earth bender walk away. He was relieved she was safe. He would have to make a point of assigning a new guard to her. The one she had come with was pretty much useless.
Zuko looked up at the setting sun and sighed. Azula was still out there somewhere, and only the gods knew what she was planning, whether revenge or to turn over a new leaf. He could never be too sure, nor could he be too careful. Azula was too powerful a force to be underestimated, and in her mental state, even more of a threat. He would have to find some way to keep Toph safe and still allow her the freedom to have a wonderful summer. Perhaps if he was with her, he could protect her.
Zuko smiled. He needed a little break anyway. Perhaps a holiday on Ember Island would loosen him up a bit. He left the front courtyard and began making plans for his trip.
Toph sat alone in her room deep in thought. Whoever had been spying on her would be watching her and she needed to be on her guard. She wasn't sure that she should tell Zuko anything about it. He was too concerned with other things and besides, he was in no shape to begin worrying about her. He had already been very worried about her coming back a little late and she had a feeling he would turn overprotective if he knew. She would deal with the intruder herself.
Picking up her stones, she began to rotate them slowly in her hands. A little earth was enough to keep an earth bender busy for hours. She smiled slightly remembering how she and Aang had first met. Twinkletoes had been the first one to knock her out of the fighting ring back at home. The humiliation was unbelievable! But then, she gained some respect for the Avatar and later, their adventure would change her whole life.
She put down her stones and hugged her knees to her. A lot had changed for them in the last ten years. She had gained all the respect she ever wanted, and more. She had her family with her now. All her friends, saving Sparky of course, were happy and safe. She could actually play a part in saving the Fire Nation now. She was happy too, yes, but she missed the others and their adventures together. They all had their own families now and their own lives live. She was still alone.
"So is Zuko," said a little voice in her head. She stopped and sat up straight. Zuko was alone! The math did make sense... but he was recovering from having lost his one true love and besides, she didn't like Sparky in that way...
"Oh, you don't, huh? Are you absolutely sure?" came the same voice again. Toph hugged her knees again and rested her chin on them. She and Zuko had shared a special kind of bond. They would always be friends, she knew that for a fact. To think about romance with him was more than a little awkward for her, though not entirely what she would call disgusting...
A knock on her door drew her from her thoughts and she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She could at least try to tell who it was on the other side of the door.
Her heart did a little flip as she realised that it was Zuko. Clearing her throat and gaining some composure, she breathed deep and said, "Come in."
Zuko stepped into the still dark room and smiled.
"I guess you don't need lamps when you're blind, huh?" he asked taking a wick to light the lamp nearest him.
"Not really. There's nothing particularly interesting for me to see, is there?" she asked with a smile of her own. Zuko chuckled and turned to face her.
"I'm sorry about today. I know you can take care of yourself Toph, it's just that... well, I have to worry about so many things and..."
Toph stopped him.
"It's okay. I get it. I'm not mad or anything. Is there any special reason why you came to see me?"
"Oh, well, yeah. I was thinking that maybe I should take some time off. I'm... uh... heading to Ember Island first thing tomorrow morning. Maybe you'd like to come with me?" he asked awkwardly. Toph felt him shuffle his feet and smiled a little.
"Sure. I'll get ready. Thanks for letting me know."
An awkward silence followed as Zuko looked around the room.
"I hope the room's okay," he said and moved away from her.
"Yeah, it's great," said Toph sitting on the bed and smiling. She could feel his heartbeat get slightly faster.
"Is something wrong?" she asked before she allowed herself to jump to conclusions.
"No, nothing is wrong. I just wanted to make sure you weren't mad at me." She knew he was lying, but said nothing.
Zuko turned to look at Toph and something stirred deep within him. A feeling that he was sure he'd never known began to unfurl inside him and he wasn't sure how comfortable he was around her any more. Her long dark hair fell in beautiful curls all the way down to her waist and some of it draped over the front of her emerald green gown. Her pale green eyes were turned towards the lamp's light, a small wistful smile on her lips. She looked... well, she looked positively stunning!
Toph had really grown in the past decade, more than he expected. The young earth bender was a serious force to contend with now in more ways than one.
Shaking himself from his thoughts, he opened his mouth, ready to say something else but seemed to change his mind.
"Well, sleep well. I'll send servants for you in the morning," he finally said then put out the lamp and left.
Toph sat in the darkness and hugged her knees to her again, this time with a little smile. Maybe her and Zuko wasn't such a bad idea.
In the morning, the maids Zuko had promised came for Toph to help her prepare. She was given a bath and clean fresh clothes. She was given the scent she had picked in the market weeks before in Gaoling. The fresh scent of pine and oak. She loved it particularly for the trees they represented; strength and perseverance.
When she got to the front steps of the palace, she felt Zuko's heartbeat and smiled. He hadn't seen her yet. She heard him giving orders for their things to be moved to another carriage. Then he looked up and saw her. She was a vision in green. He smiled watching her come down the steps.
"Toph, you look... um, well, really good."
"Why thank you Sparky. I'm sure you look good too," she said with a smirk. He couldn't help but laugh. He took her hand and led her to the breakfast room where they ate in companionable silence then headed for their palanquin. Zuko had got one big enough for the both of them to take them to the shore. From there, they would take a boat to Ember Island.
The trip there was pretty long, but they got there in one piece at least. Toph felt the familiar breeze one could only feel on the island and smiled. Nostalgia; sweet, beautiful, unrestrained nostalgia...
"We're here," he said taking her hand again to help her off the ship. Her mother had thankfully taught her not to refuse every bit of help given to her and besides, Zuko wasn't helping her because she was blind. He was helping her because he was being courteous.
"It feels so familiar," she said letting her feet take in all the sensation around her. The sea to the west, the lapping waves, the shifting sand not too far away, children playing happily... a lot was happening and she was glad for it. Excitement at last!
The house had been redone. There was water flowing in the fountain. She could smell the fairly new paint, even though it had been almost five years since he'd had the place done up. She felt the vibrations of new furniture and ornaments. She wished the others were here. Another pang hit her and she pushed it aside, This trip wasn't all about her. She would make sure of that.
When their things had been put away, Toph and Zuko went for a walk along the beach to relive their memories with the gang together. Of course Zuko had been too busy training the Avatar to bend fire to have any meaningful fun.
"I hear the Ember Island players have been better informed about our adventures," he said smiling.
"Oh no, they still exist? I guess some things don't change. It's a wonder they survived this long!" she said with a chuckle.
"We should go see what they're up to now, just for fun," he said nudging her gently. She nodded and laughed again. Zuko thought he hadn't heard anything half so lovely in years. His gaze softened as the young earth bender told him about one of her particularly difficult students in the art of metal bending. She was lively and animated as she told him about it.
"... and then he fell off! He couldn't do anything for a week and the nurse wouldn't let him out for anything! Boy, was he grumpy," she said in a fit of laughter.
"How's your sand bending by the way?" he asked casually.
"A lot better. I can bend wet sand easily because it's wet and more 'together' than dry sand, but I can bend that too. I've had a lot of time to practice."
To prove it, she stomped in the sand and lifted her hands. Immediately, some sand gave way and formed the fire nation emblem.
"That's amazing," said Zuko examining it.
"Why thank you Princess," she said with a smile as she punched his shoulder. Zuko rubbed his shoulder as she walked past him.
"I seem to recall having asked for a field trip and the last one pretty much sucked," she said. Zuko remembered. Sokka, Aang and Katara had been with him at some point in their adventures when their lives had changed forever. Toph had tried the same thing but it hadn't worked out so well. He had been worried since they couldn't find Aang and the day that Sozin's comet came was nearing.
"I guess I'll have to make up for that, huh?"
"Oh, but you are! And now that I am taking charge of this field trip, you have to do everything I ask you to do," she said crossing her arms over her chest defiantly.
"Alright, I give up. So, what do you want to do?"
"What, without a fight? Aaaw, you're no fun Princess..."
Zuko smiled and took her hand leading her down the beach.
"I know when I'm in a losing war," he said.
The rest of the day was spent with the Fire Lord doing Toph's bidding. Ordering him around was fun. She left absolutely no room for argument. At the end of the day, they sat by a bonfire Toph had ordered Zuko to make by the beach.
"So your parents finally gave you the freedom you wanted," he said throwing another log into the fire.
"Well, as much as they would allow. I guess I made them bend their rules a little. They had to let go when the king of Ba Sing Se asked me to go and train his men."
"It must be nice having a family," he said and Toph heard his voice lose some of its brightness. She realised that Zuko was more alone than she was. She had a mother and father and she had made new friends in Gaoling and Omashu and all over the earth kingdom. Zuko had lost his father, his wife and first child, his mother was lost and his sister was mad. He only had his uncle left, and Iroh was getting on in years. Toph rose and went to sit next to him.
She took a deep breath and before she could back out, put her arms around Zuko and hugged him. Forcing herself to be nice, she stayed still with her arms around him.
Zuko looked down at Toph and felt some of the loneliness dissolve. He put his arms around her and smiled as a tear went down his cheek. Another followed it, and another. Toph heard him heave and sat up. She reached for his face and felt the wetness. She would normally jibe him for being such a wuss and call him 'Princess' again, but not this time. She wiped away his tears and smiled gently.
"You have a family too, you know," she said before she could stop herself, "that's what me and the others are for."
Zuko smiled as Toph began to trace the contours and lines of his face, slowly wiping away any moisture there.
"I've never known what you look like," she said in a soft, low voice, as she traced his cheekbones with her fingers, committing every curve to memory.
"I've wondered a lot of times. Twinkletoes is pretty smooth around here." she touched his jaw, "Katara has a much smoother chin and a softer curve right here," she said touching his chin, "Suki too. Sokka is too funny to describe. He threw a fit when I said so," she said with a chuckle.
Zuko looked down at Toph and smiled. She began to trace his lips and felt his hand brush some hair out her face. She felt herself begin to tremble slightly at the contact. She'd never been this close to Zuko. It was exciting and new. The feelings in her were a little uncomfortable, but she held them inside, not knowing whether she should move or not. He laid his hand on her cheek and she felt his face come closer. He was going to kiss her!
Before she could protest, his lips were pressed against hers. All her initial misgivings slowly melted at the heat of such close contact. Zuko was kissing her! And she wasn't about to fight him off either. Sparky knew what he was about for sure. Then she remembered what Iroh had told her. Zuko had kept all his pain inside. He was still scarred on the inside. With his emotional outer shell still as hard as it was, nothing they would ever go through as a couple would fix it. If anything, they would be dooming their relationship. Toph pulled away slowly, her hand on Zuko's neck stroking the hair at his nape gently, his forehead resting on hers.
"We can't..." she said and broke off. How could she say it without hurting him more? He needed to let all his pain go, not add to it.
"I'm sorry, I..." Toph put her fingers on his lips.
"I want to... but we can't, not yet..." she whispered, shutting her eyes. Zuko nodded and pulled away slowly. She missed the contact immediately. She pulled up her knees and sat facing the fire. Zuko stared into the flames, his heart in turmoil. He loved Mai, he had for a long time. He had been sure she would be the only one he would ever love. Her death had broken him completely. He had lost his one chance at being truly happy, beginning his family anew... then Toph came along and he was taken to her like a child to colour. Cursing himself for being so fickle, he turned away from her. They sat there in silence until the fire died, then they went back to the beach house, still not exchanging a single word.
Toph went to her room and shut the door then leaned on it. She put a hand on her lips. Well, to be fair, she had asked for a life-changing field trip.