When Toph first joined the group, she hated how physical they were.
Touch came easy to them—two siblings and an air nomad—but it was foreign to her. She had grown up under the stifling watch of household servants. They never gave her space, but they weren’t free with their touches. The servants didn’t cuddle up to her on cold nights the way her friends did. They didn’t sling an arm over her shoulders, or nudge her, or knock their feet together as they ate dinner.
A week into their journey, and they were touching her like they’d known her her whole life—like they’d known her even longer, like their spirits were joined in a past life, considering that her parents, people who birthed and raised her, didn’t touch her as affectionally as this.
She found it strange, at first, but the more it happened, the more Toph found she … didn’t hate it. Without realising it, she was drawing close to the three of them, the way they were drawn to her.
It got cold when Appa fly higher to avoid being detected, and there wasn’t much room in the saddle, so it made sense that they would huddle for warmth. And she reasoned that she had more right to throw herself bodily over someone than the others, since Katara and Sokka could rug themselves up in furs or bury into their sleeping bags, and Aang said he could keep himself warm with his bending.
Once Toph made that decision, once she gave into their free touches, there was no going back. No more personal space. Katara complained that she was heavy, but she always shifted to accommodate to Toph’s presence. Aang snuggled up to anyone that came close. Sokka was the best, though—he was the biggest, and he wasn’t as bony as Aang, and he slept like a log.
Toph had thought Sokka was the best, anyway. Until they adopted a firebender.
It was a few days after Zuko had joined, and the group seemed to have accepted that wasn’t going to attack them in their sleep. But it was awkward between them. They didn’t know how to talk to him. He didn’t know how to talk to them. He doubted that they liked him, and he didn’t blame them for that.
That night was especially cold. Sokka was hunched over the unlit campfire when Zuko came back from bathing in the nearby river, steam still curling around his shoulders.
“Dinner still isn’t ready?” Aang complained, flopping down next to Toph.
Sokka threw the rocks into the pile of wet wood. “I’ve been struggling to light this stupid thing for over an hour! Last night’s rain has drenched everything and I can’t find a sharp enough stone. Toph won’t sharpen anything for me. She seems to be enjoying watching me suffer. Katara, can you bend the water out of the wood—?”
“I can try,” Katara said, “but the water seems pretty soaked in and that kind of wood is hard to work with.”
Sokka dragged his fingers down his face. “We’re going to starve.”
“Here,” Zuko said, and knelt by the pitiful campfire. He bundled the sticks into something more structured and then punched a flame into the centre.
Sokka stared up at him like he was mentally drafting a marriage proposal, before springing up and throwing himself at Zuko. “Welcome to the group, buddy!”
Zuko shoved him off. “I thought I was already part of the group? Was I not already part of the group?”
“You were, but now you have the Sokka stamp of approval.” Sokka slumped back into his seat with a dreamy look. “I’ll never have to light another campfire again.”
“Can you teach me to do that?” Aang asked. “Sure,” Zuko said. “It’s pretty basic bending.”
Sokka made a contented sound in the back of his throat. “Two portable fire-lighters. Dreams really do come true.”
The fire cracked and popped as it ate away at the moisture soaked into the wood. It was easy for Zuko to keep half a mind on it as he talked, easier than meditating with a handful of candles. When he was meditating, he had to keep his thoughts down and his mind at ease—something he had always struggled with—while still being conscious of the physical flames around him.
Sokka started fantasising aloud about being able to cook wherever he wanted now that he had Zuko at his disposal. Zuko stared into the yellow flames and let the words wash over him.
Cold fingers pressed into the back of his neck and he jumped, knocking into Katara.
“Sorry.” Zuko helped Katara up, and then turned back to Toph. She was grinning up at him in a way that immediately put him on edge.
“You’re warm,” Toph said, wiggling her cold fingers.
“Yes? I’m a firebender.”
Toph stood up. For every step forward she took, Zuko took one back.
“You’re warm,” she said again. “You’re a walking heat-pack. And I call dibs.”
Zuko backed up until he was pressed against Appa. Aang bounded over. He didn’t stop Toph; instead, he took one look at Zuko shrinking into Appa’s fur, and Toph leaning into him like a lecherous drunkard, and laughed. Zuko had been wrong. The Avatar wasn’t the last fruitful source of good in the world. He was an ancient god of chaos.
Toph pushed Zuko’s hands aside. Zuko went stiff, but instead of encasing him in rock, she stepped into his personal space and laid her cheek on his chest. She sighed and relaxed against him, like she had sunk into a hot bath.
“Warrrrm,” she said.
Aang leant against Zuko’s arm. “Oh, he is warm! Zuko, you’re warm.”
“Like I said,” Zuko said, holding himself stiffly now that there were two preteens cuddled up to him, “I’m a firebender. We naturally run hot.” He looked over the top of their heads to where Sokka was staring at him and Katara was making dinner and ignoring them all. “A little bit of help here?”
Sokka pressed a hand to his chest. He looked, again, like he was fighting back tears. “We have a walking fire-lighter and a walking heat-pack. Why didn’t we kidnap Zuko and force him to join us ages ago?”
Zuko—and Katara, once she looked up, saw his stiff posture, and decided to take pity on him—convinced the others to sleep by themselves that night. But the next day, when they went on a supply run, flying high above the clouds to avoid being seen, up where the air was thin and cold, Toph slid over to Zuko’s side of the saddle and tucked herself under his arm.
“Um,” Zuko said.
Sokka climbed over Katara, almost smacking her in the face with his foot, and shoved himself under Zuko’s other arm. He wiggled around until he was comfortable, and then went limp.
“Do you two mind?” Zuko said.
“Hush,” Sokka said. “Heat-packs don’t talk.”
Zuko was fairly sure Toph had fallen asleep. He looked up, trying to find some help from the others, and found Katara rearranging Sokka so she could slide in beside him, close enough to leech off Zuko’s naturally emitted heat, even if she wasn’t touching him directly.
“Even you, Katara?”
“It’s cold,” Katara said defensively. “We’ve always cuddled close when it’s close.”
“And we established that you’re not evil anymore,” Sokka put in, “so you’re free real estate.”
“Free real estate?” Zuko echoed. “What does that even mean?”
Katara and Sokka shushed him. Toph had started to softly snore against his shoulder. Aang watched on from behind the reins, pouting.
“I want firebender cuddles, too,” Aang said to no one in particular.
Zuko sighed through his nose. Sokka made a content noise at the little burst of steam.
“All alone up here,” Aang continued. “No one to cuddle with. I can’t even cuddle with Appa, because he’s flying. I’ll freeze before I can even defeat the Fire Lord …”
“Can’t airbenders regulate their temperatures?” Sokka asked.
“Still,” Aang said. “It’s not fair.”
“When we land,” Zuko told Aang, “you get your turn.” The words slipped out before Zuko could think about whether he was willing to follow up on that offer, but Aang beamed at him and turned back around to watch where they were flying, satisfied that he would get cuddles in a few hours.
But Aang was the Avatar, Zuko reasoned. If he wanted to cuddle with his firebending teacher, there was little he nor anyone else could do to stop him.
And technically, Zuko was firebending right now, just like he had bended the campfire for Sokka last night, and no one was flinching away from him; rather, they were drawing in as close to him as they could get. Toph was asleep on top of him. And Aang kept sending them glances throughout the flight, like he enjoyed the sight of his friends bundled on top of each other.
This was a form of firebending. A mundane, relatively useless form of firebending, not the kind of technique that would be any help in taking down his father or Azula, but it was still firebending. Through this, Zuko was showing Aang that firebending wasn’t something to be feared; if you let it, it could be something warm and comforting and familiar.
It was his job as the Avatar’s master to teach these kinds of lessons. That was why he had to deal with this. It didn’t matter how bony Toph was, or how Sokka dug his elbow into Zuko’s side when he shifted, or how Katara looked relaxed in his presence for once. It didn’t matter how nice the heavy warmth and the knowledge that they trusted him enough to fall asleep on him was. This was about teaching Aang firebending. That as all.
After that, the four of them gravitated towards Zuko whenever the temperature dipped even slightly. At night, he often woke to someone pulling their bedroll towards him, or slipping under his arm, or turning over in their sleep and colliding with his shoulder.
It alarmed him, at first. It had never been a good thing when someone woke him in the dead of the night. Long ago—so long ago that the memories were beginning to dull—Azula ducking into his room meant trouble. After, only Uncle dared enter his rooms, and he stopped doing that after the bandages came off and Zuko became even pricklier, carefully hoarding his personal space. On the run, waking abruptly in the night meant danger—thieves, or bandits, or guards sniffing out their trail.
It was strange, then, that he was on the run without Uncle, officially a traitor to his homeland, and for the first time since his mother left, he woke in the night sandwiched between bodies, feeling safe.
When they returned from the Boiling Rock, Hakoda didn’t seem surprised by his children’s propensity to touch. He did, however, eye Zuko when they piled onto him during a chilly night.
“Firebenders radiate heat,” Sokka told Hakoda, his side pressed up against Zuko. There was a fire going—a fire that Zuko had personally lit—but Sokka edged closer to Zuko rather than the crackling flames. “Zuko more than others. Iroh taught him the most amazing magic.”
“It's not magic,” Zuko grumbled.
Toph, on Zuko’s other side, poked him in the ribs. “What have I said about heat-packs and talking, meat-bag?”
“Meat-bag?” Zuko echoed. “Is that what I am now?”
“Insults are one of the many ways Toph shows affection,” Aang said, side-stepping the fire, seemingly oblivious to Hakoda standing off to one side, watching them with raised eyebrows. Aang maneuvered around Toph, and, finding no room on either side of Zuko, launched himself directly on top of him.
All the air went out of Zuko’s lungs. “Oof!”
The top of Aang’s bald head slotted under Zuko’s chin. Aang leant more towards Sokka, since he was less likely to catapult him off the side of the cliff if he accidentally elbowed him.
“Don’t make me sound soft, twinkle toes,” Toph said from where she was cuddled into Zuko.
“Huh,” Hakoda said. Just that. Just, Huh.
Zuko hid his burning face in the top of Aang’s head, and wished, not for the first time, that Toph would be merciful and let the ground swallow him up.
Zuko and Suki were passingly acquainted—burning someone’s village down and then escaping from prison with them didn’t offer many opportunities for them to bond. There was no animosity between them, but it was still strange for her to seek him out.
She perched at the edge of the ring, where he was going through slow, warm-up exercises. “Why do you let them crawl all over you?” she asked.
Zuko stretched out one leg, touching his toes almost lazily. “What are you talking about?”
“The others,” Suki said. “Toph, and Aang, and Sokka. You let them climb on top of you whenever they want. I wouldn’t have pegged you for the kind of guy to have that much patience.”
“It gets cold at night,” Zuko said. “I’m a firebender. I radiate warmth.”
Suki laughed. “Nice try. We have a fire going every night, and the others don’t seem too cold without a firebender to cuddle up to.”
Zuko switched legs and pretended to be intensely focused on arching his foot at the right angle, so he wouldn’t have to look at Suki’s knowing face.
“It’s calming,” Zuko said at last.
“Calming,” Suki echoed. “For who?”
Suki was still watching him. He didn’t know how he had managed to burn her village down. Without the advantage of an adult crew and Fire Nation machinery, he didn’t think he would have faired so well. Even without being able to bend, she would be difficult to take down.
Not that Zuko wanted to take her down. Not that Zuko would ever have to. They were on the same side now.
He just hoped she knew that her boyfriend seeking him out for warmth every other night was strictly platonic, and didn’t want to launch him over the cliffside in a fit of possessive rage. That sounded like something Zuko’s girlfriend would do, at least.
“Is it, though?” Suki asked. “Just for you?”
Zuko didn’t reply. It was quiet on the mountain top—just the sound of wind banging against the mountainside, and the distant crash of colliding rock as Toph pushed Aang through a lesson. Eventually, Zuko stopped stretching and straightened up.
“I grew up in the royal palace,” Zuko said, “grandson to the Fire Lord. I was privileged, sure, but there was so much pressure. I couldn’t be myself.
“I have a younger sister. You know that; you’ve met her, I think. We never really connected the way Katara and Sokka connect every day. I always had to watch my back when I was with her, even when we were playing.”
Zuko paused. In the sudden quiet, they could hear the growing sound of Aang’s earthbending lesson. Sokka’s laughter echoed up the side of the mountain, intermingled with the sound of Toph shouting corrections at her student.
“But here,” Zuko continued, “when I’m with these guys … I’ve never experienced anything like it. Being with people my own age, people who don’t care about who I am—I didn’t realise it could feel like this. That it could be this easy.” He scrubbed a hand through his shaggy hair. He probably looked crazed, standing there with his arms by his side, hair a mess. “How can it possibly be this easy?”
Suki bounced up from her perch. She seemed more like her usual self, and less like an armadillo-lion that was deciding whether or not she was going to eat him.
“You didn’t have to give me your whole life story, Zuko,” Suki said.
Zuko huffed out a breath. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I made my decision, anyway.” She beamed, whacked him in the arm the way Toph might, and then flounced back down the mountain, towards the sounds of Aang’s pained cries.
That night, after Toph rolled over and curled around Zuko’s left arm, almost knocking his cup of tea out of his hands, Suki was the one to call dibs on his right side. She slotted herself next to him as though she had been doing this all along. She held up her other arm, beckoning Sokka over, and then Zuko was buried beneath three people. It was a position that was becoming familiar to him.
Zuko blinked down at Suki. She took his almost-empty mug of tea and set it aside, and said, “Easy, right?”
Nothing in Zuko’s life was every easy. But maybe, if he let it, this friendship between them all could be.
Katara, on the other hand, was harder to convince. But once Zuko secured her loyalty, all her lingering animosity faded away. When the night air cooled and she headed over to him, sitting next to him for the first time since that first chilly flight on Appa, it felt almost natural. She belonged there, slotted between the five of them. Zuko belonged there, too. It was bewildering thought, even now, weeks after he had joined the group.
Easy, Zuko thought again. They were in war times. They were the world’s last hope, the last flickering flame of the rebellion, and yet when they came together like this, reduced to a sprawl of limbs, five teenagers pushing up against the warmth that radiated from Zuko, he felt almost peaceful.
Sometimes, late at night, when all the shadows blurred together, Zuko was scared that he would lose himself to the crown. That he would disappear beneath the fine silk robes, and the dramas of the court, and the power and pressure of running a country.
And then there were moments like this when he realised how unfounded those fears were. He would never succumb to his position. Not while his friends were around, anyway.
Zuko was sure he had something more important to be doing. The Lord of the Department of Fisheries kept trying to contact him about—something to do with ocean borders with the Earth Kingdom. Zuko had skim-read the missive. Beneath the familiar warmth of his friends, it was easy to forget all the official jargon and upcoming meetings, the responsibilities that had been weighing him down.
Aang’s pendent kept getting tangled with Zuko’s embroidered bell sleeves. Katara helped pry the two of them apart when they got caught, but her long dress fell across Zuko’s robes and tripped them up whenever they tried to shift into a more comfortable position. Every time the three of them lurched to one side, tangled in each other’s clothes, Toph barked out a laugh, even if their jerky movements disrupted her, too.
Sokka complained that he couldn’t read his letters whenever they dissolved into loud laughter and bickering. Katara elbowed him in the head. She said it was accidental, but from the way she was smirking, Zuko wasn’t sure.
Suki, asleep on Sokka’s chest, slept through the squabble that broke out between the two siblings.
The guards flanking the door glanced at one another. “Should we … help the Fire Lord and his honoured guests?”
Iroh, half-obscured by the gossamer curtain draped over the doorway, laughed. He went unnoticed by the teenagers piled together on the rug.
“Fire Lord Zuko’s friends don’t visit every day,” Iroh said, “and certainly not altogether like this. Let them enjoy the sweet simplicity of friendship before the anniversary celebrations begin.”
Aang’s pendent snagged on Zuko’s bell sleeves again. Zuko tried to wrench himself free with such force that he was sent barrelling over. The five teenagers lounging on top of him fell with him.
Zuko glowered up at the gilded ceiling. “This is not how I expected to spend my day.”
Aang buried his laugh in Zuko’s chest. They were still stuck together. Katara was watching Aang with a fond little smile. Sokka didn’t argue the new position, just settled back in, using Zuko’s arm as a pillow, rearranging Suki so she was sleeping comfortably.
“I guess this is where I live now,” Zuko said to no one in particular. “On this stretch of rug. Because clearly, I have nothing better to do than be everyone’s pillow.”
“Heat-packs,” Toph said, flapping a hand in the vague vicinity of Zuko’s mouth. “No talking.”
“We’re in the Fire Nation,” Zuko said, “in spring. You don’t need a heat-pack.”
Toph, realising she couldn’t reach Zuko’s face, smacked his thigh. He yelped, high-pitched. “No talking!” she commanded.
Zuko fell silent. Without thinking about it—without thinking about much of anything for the first time in months, no statistics or reminders or anxieties running through his head—he went lax under the relaxed weight of his friends.
“Yes,” Iroh said, slipping back through the curtained door, “the Fire Lord is exactly where he is meant to be.”