Toph was bored. Which was a sad truth to face when you consider that for being one of the Avatar’s companions, most of her days passed in the Western Air Temple consisted of waking up, breakfast, lying around, lunch, maybe an afternoon training session with Aang if she was lucky enough to nab him for the day, dinner, picking her feet, and going to bed. Rinse and repeat. Day by day.
She huffed, blowing her bangs out of her face. Even worse, there was no one who could entertain her for more than half an hour at most. Sugar Queen was always bustling around with chores (which she did not want to get roped into), Aang was always training or bouncing around the temple (boring), Sokka had a weird fixation with hunting everything within the vicinity of the temple and the surrounding forest (even more boring), and wherever Sokka was, Suki would be attached to his hip (gross). She wasn’t old enough to relate to Haru outside of sparring (and she kicked the other earthbender’s ass every single time), Teo was all about flying (disgusting), and The Duke was too young for her to play along with his games. Hakoda and Chit Sang were nice, she supposed, but they were adults trying to be responsible.
She sat up from her prone position on the dusty ground in sudden realization. How could she have forgotten Aang’s newest teacher? Sure, she hadn’t had many chances to spend time with him due to a whirlwind of events that happened ever since he’d joined (going off on an adventure with Twinkletoes and breaking into a spirits damned prison with Snoozles barely a few days after being accepted into the group was time-consuming, who knew?)
But the point is, Sparky had brought a lot more excitement to the group within the span of a few days than they would usually experience in a week. It didn’t hurt that the feats he pulled off were impressive too (if Sokka’s exaggerated tales could be trusted), and that was just perfect in Toph’s sightless eyes.
She hopped up, ready to find the resident firebender. Sparky was like a shadow, flitting through the crags and ruins of the temple like he was born to live in the darkness. But Toph could find anyone. She was, after all, the greatest earthbender in the world. And with the way Sparky’s heart was almost always in a chronic jackrabbiting state? It was too easy to seek him out.
And it was. She found him in one of the smaller courtyards of the temple. From the fluid stances he was diligently shifting through and the faint sound of sharpened metal whistling through the air, he was practicing his swordsmanship.
Which was another cool thing about him. He can kick ass even without bending. Toph was admittedly impressed when she learned that neat little fact about him. There were hardly many benders out there that could still fight back if they landed themselves in a situation where bending was out of the question.
It was hilarious too, when Sokka found that his threats with his Space Sword didn’t quite hold up as well as he thought it would when he none too subtly practiced his own stances in front of Sparky in some attempted display of machismo.
“Your footing’s a little off,” Zuko pointed out quietly as Sokka demonstrated how he would stab a potential enemy.
“Excuse me?” Sokka sniffed haughtily.
“Your left foot. It’s too far forward. It’d be entirely too easy to knock you off your feet.” Smokestack seemed to shrink in on himself, hesitant about overstepping his boundaries, heart rate picking up as attention was drawn to him.
“And what would you know of the fine arts of swordsmanship?” Sokka asked, chin tilted up in defiance as he slung his sword over his shoulder.
“Er…” Zuko flushed. “I’ve had swords training since I was six.”
Toph couldn’t see it, but she could practically feel how Sokka’s jaw unhinged and his mouth fell open. It was the funniest thing she’d had the pleasure of witnessing for a long, long time. It wasn’t fair, Sokka had lamented, that Zuko could bend and fight with weapons. There had to be some natural law of the universe that prohibited such an event from occurring.
Sadly, the universe dictated that Zuko could in fact both bend and fight with swords, as he’d thoroughly trounced Sokka in a spar when demanded. Multiple times. Within two minutes flat. Toph had laughed far longer than two minutes at Sokka’s demise.
But enough of that, Toph needed entertainment now.
“Hey Sparky!” She called, stomping her way over. The firebender startled out of his reverie before she felt him turn on his heel to face her. “Whatcha up to?”
“Hi, Toph.” Zuko greeted her. “Just running through my forms. Is something wrong?”
“Why do you think there’s something wrong?” Toph scoffed. “Just because I came looking for you doesn’t mean something horrible happened.”
Zuko flushed, scuffling his foot against the stone nervously.
“Right. Sorry, guess I’m not used to…”
“Having someone seek you out just ‘cause?” Toph finished for him, placing her hands on her hips.
“Yeah,” she felt Zuko relax his stance somewhat. Good enough for her.
“Right, well – I’m bored, so you’re gonna have to entertain me.”
“Oh,” Zuko looked up in surprise. “Sure. What um, what do you want to do?”
“Come on, let’s go to the clifftop. I wanna see the sunset.” Toph grinned toothily.
“But you’re blind,” Zuko pointed out, puzzled.
“Aw, you’re no fun. Sokka always falls for it.” And it was hilarious. They’d been travelling with each other for months, been dragged to hell and back together, busted each other’s ass out of trouble countless times – and Sokka still fell for it hook, line and sinker.
“… Sorry?” Right. And then there was Zuko. Poor, innocent Zuko who confused himself over the simplest social interactions and was still learning how to process sarcasm.
“Forget it, Hotshot.” Toph sniggered, grabbing his arm. “Let’s go!”
Up on the clifftop overhanging the misty valley below, it was noticeably colder than the rest of the temple. Toph shivered, withdrawing into herself. Why did she think this was a good idea again? It was colder than Azula’s heart up here. And it wasn’t like she could see the sunset anyway.
Yeah, definitely not one of her best ideas.
At least, that’s what she thought, until she noticed something – or rather, someone – radiating heat next to her like a furnace.
“You’re so warm,” she gasped in delight, latching on to Zuko’s arm and clutching it tightly to her chest. “Why would you hide something like this from us?”
“I – I didn’t?” Zuko stammered nervously, endearingly confused. “All firebenders run hot. I thought that was common knowledge.”
“Maybe in the Fire Nation, but the rest of the world hasn’t exactly been friendly with firebenders for a while.”
“Oh,” Zuko said, sheepish. “Right.”
“Lighten up, Sparky.” Toph grinned. “You’re my personal heater now.”
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Zuko laughed, a breathy huff of a thing, but a laugh nonetheless.
“Go on, I dare you.” Toph disputed, jutting her lip out in a not-pout, thank you very much, but a show of challenge.
“No, I don’t think I will. You’d just kick my ass,” Zuko carefully edged an arm around her, tucking her into his body more securely. Something pleased curled up within Toph’s chest, smug satisfaction mixed with elation that Zuko was initiating physical contact when he’d seemed so averse to it before.
“Damn right I will.” She asserted. And then, because she couldn’t resist asking, “So how come you don’t really hang out with us?”
Zuko stiffened for a second before he cautiously relaxed again. “I don’t want to overstep my boundaries. And when everyone’s by themselves, I guess I just don’t want to invade on anyone’s personal space.”
Fair enough. So far Toph, Sokka and Aang were the only people who were amiable with Zuko. At least, the people who were his age. Teo and Haru were still wary of the Fire Prince, walking on eggshells around him like they were afraid of setting off his infamous temper. Katara still hated his guts and Suki had been spending all her time glued to Sokka. In various ways. Like, from linking their hands to sharing their spit. Hakoda had his hands full with his own children and Chit Sang surprisingly spent most of his time as The Duke’s babysitter. Maybe it was an adult thing. Or maybe everyone hasn’t settled into the newfound group dynamic yet.
Momo and Appa seemed to like him, at least. Now Toph could understand why the flying lemur had opted to curl up on his stomach every night when they went to bed. Smart animal, capitalizing on this glorious treasure trove of heat. Appa was a given; he liked anyone who fed him treats and he was the first to accept Zuko into the group, after all. Even before Toph. She was still a little sour about that.
Beaten by a ten-ton fur rug. Damn, that was a new low.
Still, not wanting to encroach on someone’s personal space is something Toph of all people should know the best.
“Personal space is really something, huh?” She couldn’t help saying a little bitterly.
“Is… is something wrong?” Sparky tensed up again like he was gearing for a fight. Toph squished him a little, tugging him closer until his posture melted again.
“Nothing. It’s just… personal space, you know? I don’t get it in the same way most people do. Like, sometimes I hate that whenever I want to write to someone, there’s always gonna be someone else who knows what I wanna say.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Her fingers involuntarily dug into Zuko’s arm. He made no move to pry them off. “I just mean – I can’t write. I can’t read. I need to tell someone else what I want to say so they can write it down for me. And sometimes… sometimes I just want as few people as possible to know what’s in the letter.”
She felt Sparky’s body shift slightly as he turned to look at her. “You mean your parents never taught you braille?”
Her eyebrows furrowed together. “Braille?”
“Yeah, it’s like – it’s a system blind people can use to read and write. You basically run your fingers over these indents or bumps and each pattern symbolizes a letter.”
“No,” Toph said carefully. “No, my parents did not tell me that.”
She didn’t know whether to scream her frustration to the heavens or curse them to hell. No doubt another tactic up her parents’ sleeves to keep her under their thumbs. Why wouldn’t they know such a system existed? It was just another tool for them to chain her down and keep her silenced.
“I can teach you, if you’d like.” Zuko’s calming voice brought her out of her simmering thoughts. “And then you can write all the letters you want without anyone knowing what you’ve written.”
“I’d like that,” Toph said quietly. “I’d really, really like that.”
“The next time we’re in town, we’ll buy you a slate and stylus.” Zuko said confidently. “It’s what blind people use to write.”
She smiled and tapped him on the arm lightly (he still wasn’t used to the blunter force she’d usually use).
Sometimes Toph has nightmares. It’s what happens if you’re a kid – or, well, anyone, who is thrown into a war that’s brought the worst out of everyone. It didn’t matter that nightmares are a common thing; she doesn’t like to admit it out loud – it was just another reason for her parents to coddle her and reassure her that even with how blind and weak she was, they’d make sure she was kept safe forever. They’d never acknowledged her nightmares as something intrinsic, a facet of life that everyone experienced, blind or not. And so Toph stopped telling them about her nightmares.
And they never asked.
(Deep down, Toph was afraid of her parents knowing that sometimes the nightmares were about them – not out of a sense of pride, but because she doesn’t want to hurt them the way they’ve hurt her).
Even now, when she’s free from the weight of their gazes, from the suppression of society, from the crippling self-doubt that would creep up on her on the occasion (whispering how she’d never be good enough; not when she’s lacking one of the most basic senses), she refuses to let her friends know of the terrors that crawl out of the dregs of night. Safe in her self-built tent which acts as the walls that shield her from prying eyes, she lets herself curl up and tremor imperceptibly when she dreams of falling, drowning, not being able to sense anything in her environment, sounds becoming distorted, textures under her fingers changing by the second so that she can’t grasp what exactly she’s feeling and what she’s supposed to feel under her palms –
Sometimes, the sensations are too much yet simultaneously too little and she has to break free of her self-built safe haven as if it had been warped into a self-built prison in the time she was asleep.
Crawling out, the cold air of the night nipping at her nose was a relief from the stifling sensation of trapped walls around her, squeezing closer and closer by the second, so similar to the austere entrapments her parents had enforced on her her entire life.
She’d take dusty dirt-paved roads and broken tiles over gilded ballroom dancefloors and oriental rugs any day.
Sitting on the precipice of one of the temple courtyards looming over misty banks, Toph felt a little too alone with her thoughts. She didn’t even know what mist looked like. All she knew was that the escarpment of the cliff was shrouded by thick water vapour, so much so that the others exclaimed that they couldn’t see the bottom. Toph could; she mapped out the entire structure of Wan Shi Tong’s Library. Feeling out the height of the cliff was easy enough for her. But that didn’t matter when she couldn’t describe what it looked like to people with sight.
Eyesight was probably the most unreliable of all the senses. It tricked you, deceived you, warped things to one’s liking, cast an illusion that people would rather hang onto rather than acknowledge the truth.
But Toph had never been afforded that luxury.
Quiet footsteps approached from behind her. Toph didn’t bother turning to acknowledge them. Sparky was hesitant, unsure, his heart thumping in a tac-tac-tac that sped up with each step that brought him closer to Toph.
“What do you want?” She asked, to save him the trouble of fumbling and stuttering and making a general fool of himself.
He jolted, clearly not anticipating her to make the first move.
“I heard you getting up,” Sparky said softly. Soft, soft, soft, always soft. He’d never been anything else around them, always exposing his underbelly like how a boarcupine would turn onto its back to announce ‘look at me, I mean no harm, just an innocent creature that wouldn’t hurt a fly’.
That attitude would’ve been perfect to her parents.
Sadly, Toph could understand where this timid docility came from. Show them you’re harmless, show them you’re no threat, show them you encompass everything that’s gentle and benign, and maybe that’ll be enough to get the attention off you, maybe that’ll be enough to keep yourself safe in a forest full of predators just waiting for you to slip up, stumble, take the fall so they can home in and sink their fangs into the back of your neck.
“I’m fine,” she said, instead of voicing all those thoughts aloud. She heard him take one more step closer until he was standing right next to her. The gravel crunched under his footsteps, deliberately loud, as if to announce his presence as if it didn’t matter that she could sense him a mile away.
“Can I sit next to you?”
She shrugged. He settled down, keeping a respectable distance between himself and her. An acknowledgement that she wanted space, but also wanted the company. Toph quashed down the feeling of gratefulness the gesture incited.
What now though?
Toph didn’t want to go down the cliché route of ‘do you want to talk about it?’ but sitting in complete silence seemed too stifling at the same time. She hadn’t expected anyone to come out after her, much less planned for the person to sit next to her, carving himself a spot in the stone like how she easily scooped out masses of rock.
Sparky filled in the uncertainty for her.
“I had a nightmare too.”
Surprise curled inside Toph. Outwardly, her disposition was as cool and calm as ever.
She wasn’t sure what else to offer. Was an acknowledgement enough?
“Yeah.” Sparky said. “Nightmares suck, don’t they?”
He made it sound like any other easily answerable question, like ‘would you like some breakfast?’, or ‘birds have wings, right?’, or ‘hey Toph, I noticed you brooding over the cliffside, mind if I join you in my favourite activity?’
“Yupp.” Toph said. “They do.”
And because he’s making an effort, she continues the line of conversation, “What did you dream about?”
A shuffle as Zuko fidgeted uncomfortably in his place on the stone floor.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she was quick to assure. No, she wouldn’t push anyone in matters like these. Not like Sugar Queen, who embodied the ‘push’ part of her element whenever she caught a whiff of an opportunity to mother and meddle in someone else’s business.
Not that it was necessarily bad, but sometimes Toph wished she would take the hint and leave her alone when it mattered.
“No, I will.” Zuko replied, heartbeat determined and strong. “I want to.”
Toph’s own heart stuttered in her chest. A traitorous lump manifested in her throat. Sparky wanted to confide in her. Sparky trusted her enough with something as delicate as feelings. It was easy for everyone to forget, when they saw her roughened, callused hands, that she was just as capable of holding someone’s fragile heart in her hands as she was moulding the earth to her liking.
“I dreamt I was fighting my sister, my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather… everyone in my family who urged the war on, who wanted to see the world burned down to ashes.”
Toph shifted closer to the former prince. Wasn’t it strange, she marvelled, how his entire family emitted bloodlust and coldness, lashed out searing heat that sought to maim, cutting words that sliced deep into the skin, left wicked scars that ravaged not just the entire world, but all the individuals who lived on it? Yet here was Zuko, who exuded only the gentlest warmth, like the touch of the sun during a balmy summer day; a product of the same scorching hellfire that birthed the members of his family who sat proud and remorseless on a throne made of blood and bones.
“They kept calling me a traitor to the family, to my nation, to everything they ever stood for. And I kept fighting back, even though I knew it was a losing battle. I looked for my uncle, the only person who I knew could stand up against them, but I couldn’t find him. So it was just me, trying to stand my ground against a legacy borne by a century of senseless cruelty.”
“I’m glad you are.” Toph reached over, grabbing his hand. “You’re doing something right against a sea of wrongs. And you’re doing this on your own terms; you’re doing this not because of expectations, but because you know, deep down, it’s the right thing to do.”
At this point, she isn’t sure if she’s offering reassurances to him or herself.
“Thank you.” Zuko said, fingers curling around hers. “That means a lot to me.”
Maybe it was because the air had been cleared somewhat, maybe it was the veil of vulnerability that had settled over them, maybe it was the fact that Toph had found something to ground her to the world that wasn’t the earth underneath the feet, but she opened her mouth to spill the secrets that had been shoved into the crevices of her mind.
“I had a nightmare that I was completely blind. I couldn’t feel anything around me. Everything sounded like it had been muted, I couldn’t use my seismic senses, I couldn’t taste anything, smell anything… but I knew something bad was coming.”
Zuko said nothing, only tightening his grip to anchor her.
“Sometimes I wonder if my life would be better if I could see,” she admitted, voice as fragile as shale. “Maybe then my parents wouldn’t have tried to hide me, kept my existence unknown like I was a blemish in their otherwise perfect lives.”
“Your parents were wrong.” Zuko stated firmly, the words as unyielding as quartzite. “I would know something about parents projecting their own fucked up version of expectations on you.”
There was something bitter underlying, something corrosive and acerbic, with a bite of restrained anger and mournfulness. Toph had an inkling of what the reason behind it was.
“I heard rumours,” Toph began, “of a banished Fire Nation prince a few years ago. They said his most defining feature was a scar on his face.”
Zuko’s hand stiffened in hers, before relaxing marginally.
“Yeah,” he murmured, “it’s pretty obvious.”
“Not to me,” Toph tried to crack a grin, but it came out more like a grimace. “I don’t know the whole story behind it, if you’re worried.”
“I’m not,” Zuko reassured, but the skip of his heartbeat gave him away.
“You don’t need to lie,” Toph said, fighting back the amusement that threatened to rear its head at the most inopportune time. She was literally holding his hand. Save for someone who believed in their own lies, there was no way she could have missed it.
“Oh, sorry.” A pause. “So you don’t… know what happened?”
Her heart ached at the rawness of his voice.
“No,” Toph squeezed his hand. “And I won’t force you to tell me. Not unless you want to.”
Another pause, longer this time. Toph could practically hear the thoughts buzzing in Zuko’s mind, a litany of ‘what if’s’ and ‘should I’s’ before finally, Zuko bowed his head and whispered to the ground,
“I don’t think I’m ready yet.”
“Hey, don’t sweat it.” Toph said cheerfully, not the least bit disappointed. “It’s enough that you came out here to sit with me.”
It tugged at Toph’s heartstrings to hear the disbelieving hope in Zuko’s voice. Beaten down over and over again, only to get up every time with the same kindness that marked him a true leader of his people. That was an entirely different type of strength very few could ever have the will to strive for. It was one of the aspects of Zuko that had made Toph feel more and more confident over the past few days that he belonged with their merry band of misfits. A feature that would be infinitely more defining than any scar could ever hope to achieve.
“Of course, Sparky.” She said resolutely. “Of course.”
Yeah, Toph reasserted, eyesight was the worst sense of all. Not when it led people to refuse to see past the scar marring his face to learn the innate goodness behind.
Maybe it was a good thing she was born unseeing. It let her see things everyone else couldn’t discern to the naked eye.
“Hey Sparky, how much do bananas cost?”
Zuko paused from his perusing of the list to look at Toph contemplatively. He… wasn’t actually sure. Growing up in the palace, he never had to step out for groceries. They had servants for that. And on the rare occasion he was allowed to get out of the palace, it had always been the adults handling the money. He didn’t even need to think about how much something costed, all he had to do was point it out or indicate he wanted it.
Even during his banishment, buying the supplies weren’t his responsibility. Sure, he’d go out to browse the stalls himself, but he had never been involved in buying food or basic staples. That was the responsibility of the cook and other crewmembers involved in stocktaking. And now he slightly regretted never bothering to learn typical market prices. Yes, he had been involved in budgeting, but it was an entirely different thing knowing how much a bag of rice would cost or how much coin needed to be shelled out to purchase a crate of pears.
Katara had sent him and Toph out to buy the groceries, seeing as how everyone else were busying themselves with other chores. She hadn’t given many instructions outside of handing him a list and telling him not to get the papaya if it was too expensive. Zuko hadn’t bothered to badger her for more specific instructions; he was pleased enough that she was now placing her trust in him to handle one of the most important chores. Although he supposed going on a trip to track down her mother’s murderer would naturally bring people closer together.
That still didn’t tell him what the typical price for a bunch of bananas was. If he had to guess though…
Toph hummed, tapping her chin before nodding sagely. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Zuko discretely sighed in relief.
“Geez, Sparky, it wasn’t a trick question.”
Oops. Right, Toph was blind, not deaf.
“Sorry,” Zuko grinned sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.
“Whatever,” Toph punched him lightly on the arm. “Let’s get the damn vegetables and shit.”
Really, it was more Zuko selecting the produce, for obvious reasons. Two bundles of carrots, a head of lettuce, a couple potatoes, a vine of tomatoes, two papayas, and a bunch of bananas went into the basket. Zuko handed the lot over to the vendor and dug out his coin purse.
“That’ll be six coppers.”
Zuko blinked. “… You mean for the bananas?”
The vendor eyed him oddly. “No, the whole lot.”
“What do you mean only?” The man asked, confusion warping his features. “You think I’m tryin’ to rip you off or something?”
“Nope!” Toph interjected, grabbing Zuko’s arm. “Sorry, he was just kidding! He’s not very funny, but he’s trying!”
“… Right.” The vendor huffed, holding out a hand. “That’ll be six coppers.”
Zuko obediently handed the coins over, still somewhat numb by the fact that an entire basket of fruit and vegetables only costed six coppers. He hefted it under his arm and walked off, Toph in tow.
“Wait, so if you thought bananas cost two silvers, how much money did you bring with you?” Toph asked, keen interest painted over her features.
“Well, Katara gave me money, but I told her not to worry about it ‘cause I have my own. And what do you mean I thought? You didn’t even correct me!” Zuko said indignantly, even as he reached into his inner pockets, bringing out a hefty bag of coins. Toph swiped it out of his hands and weighed it carefully, whistling lowly when she realized just how stuffed to the brim it was.
“I was brought up rich. How would I know bananas don’t cost two silvers? How many of each coin do you have in here by the way?”
“Uh, they’re pretty much all gold coins.” Zuko decided not to push on the rich comment. It wouldn’t go anywhere – not when they had both been surrounded by wealth for most of their lives.
Toph whistled again, handing it back to Zuko. “We should get a little treat for ourselves, then. For coming out all this damn way for Katara’s shit.”
“I’m pretty sure we all eat that ‘shit,’” Zuko teased jokingly, adjusting the basket under his arm. “But sure. What do you want?”
“It’s your money,” Toph wrinkled her nose. “Come on, there’s gotta be something here that you want to splurge a little on.”
“I’m not sure,” Zuko replied, scratching his head. “Nothing comes to mind –” he stopped walking, eyes widening when he saw a certain shop in the distance.
“Sparky? Why’d you stop?”
“Come on,” Zuko grinned, “I have a feeling you’ll like what’s at our next stop.”
The moment they walked through the doorway, the rich, fragrant scent of roasting cocoa beans permeated their senses.
“Wow,” Toph whistled. “What’s that smell? It smells amazing.”
“You’ll see,” Zuko beamed at her before turning his attention to the elderly man at the counter. The display case showed off rows upon rows of different flavoured chocolates, with some flavours Zuko would never have been able to fathom could be made into chocolate.
“Hi,” Zuko smiled, a spark of excitement lighting up in his chest. “Can I have two samples of the eighty percent?”
“Sure, kid.” The old man fished out two small chips of dark chocolate from behind the counter and handed it to him. Zuko placed one into Toph’s hand with an eager grin spread over his face.
“Here, try it.”
“What is it?” Toph asked dubiously.
“Chocolate. It’s a Fire Nation thing. You don’t um, get them in the colonies.” Zuko explained, warily eyeing the shopkeeper. Thankfully, the old man didn’t suspect a thing, only puffing up his chest in pride and nodding.
“That’s right, only the mainland has the climate to grow cacao trees. Not to mention the skill that goes into making it.”
“Huh,” Toph popped it into her mouth, eyes widening when she registered the silky smooth, rich, bittersweet taste.
“Ohhh,” she grinned. “That’s good. That’s really good. More of that, please.”
Zuko beamed happily. “Is it too sweet? Or bitter? There’s a lot of varieties so you can adjust your preferences.”
“The one we just had was perfect.” Toph licked her fingers. “What other flavours are there?”
“Our top flavours include chili dark chocolate, raspberry, and plum blossom.” The shopkeeper listed helpfully. “You kids want a sample?”
“Yes please!” Toph shoved her hands forward. He belted out a laugh and placed a piece of each flavour into her and Zuko’s hands.
“Oh, the chili’s good.” Zuko murmured in surprise.
Toph made a face. “Too spicy for me, but you’d obviously like it, Spicehead.”
“Hey,” Zuko protested, affronted.
“The raspberry’s okay, but I really like the plum blossom.” Toph continued, ignoring his complaints.
Zuko let the flavours roll over his tongue consideringly. “I think the raspberry’s okay too, but yeah, the plum blossom’s really nice. My favourite is still the chili, though.”
“Get the chili and the plum blossom, then.” Toph demanded, planting her hands on her hips. “And the first one, the first one was good, too.”
“One block of the eighty percent, the chili and the plum blossom, please.” Zuko recited dutifully, digging out the money.
The shopkeeper carefully wrapped the chocolate in cloth and handed the bundle to Zuko, who promptly gave it to Toph.
“I’m trusting you not to eat the whole thing yourself,” Zuko teased.
Toph smirked back. “You were a fool to trust me in the first place.”
Something in Toph’s heart melted in that moment, like molten rock filling the crevasses in the ground. Before he found his place in their ragtag group, Sparky had taken all their threats and all implications of a threat seriously, kidding or not. His heartrate would spike, his breathing would quicken, and his stance subtly shifting so he was geared up for a fight or a quick escape. To hear him now, laughing because Toph had enacted a warning she’d never intend to act upon, caused a swell of relief to fill the empty sadness she carried on behalf of the prince.
Toph didn’t touch a single bite of the chocolate.
“Hey guys?” Sokka asked, head popping around the doorway. “Have you seen Boomerang?”
Toph was relaxing against a mountain of cushions, cleaning out her ears with her pinky while her feet were comfortably propped up on a settee where Zuko was sitting reading a play.
“Boomerang?” Zuko looked up, surprised. “What happened to your boomerang?”
“I don’t know,” Sokka threw his hands up in frustration. “I can’t find Boomerang. Not since this morning.”
“Where’d you leave it?” Toph asked, flicking earwax onto the floor.
“Out on the porch. I was gonna grab some polish inside but got a little side-tracked. When I came back outside, it was gone.”
“Ohh,” Zuko winced. “Yeah, I think I might know where your boomerang went.”
“Really?! Where? I’ve been looking everywhere!”
“A bird grabbed it and flew off with it, I think.” Zuko grimaced sympathetically. “I’m not completely sure. I was just coming back into the house when I saw a bird grab something off the porch and fly towards the forest. It dropped it somewhere there, I think. It was shiny and metallic, so I’m pretty sure it could’ve been your boomerang. Sorry, buddy.”
“WHAT?!” Sokka wailed. “No, no, no, you gotta be kidding me. There’s no way that happened. You’re lying, you gotta be lying. Toph, please tell me he’s lying.”
“Nope,” Toph popped the ‘p’. “He’s telling the truth.”
Sokka let out one last despairing cry and sprinted out of the room. They heard a distant, “Boomerang, I’m coming for you! Hold on for meee!” as footsteps thundered down the hallway and out the front door.
As soon as they heard the doors slam shut, Zuko and Toph sprang into action. They shoved the settee out of the way and unearthed their precious secret chocolate stash from underneath.
“I can’t believe he fell for it!” Zuko cackled, unwrapping the parcel and pulling out the blocks of chili and plum blossom chocolate.
“I wish I could’ve seen his face!” Toph sniggered, breaking off a piece of plum blossom chocolate and shoving it in her mouth.
“He didn’t even realize your feet were nowhere on the ground,” Zuko laughed, biting into his own piece of the chili chocolate.
“Well, he is an idiot.” Toph smirked.
“You didn’t hide his boomerang somewhere too difficult for him to find, did you?” Zuko asked, lounging back against the settee to contently enjoy his prize.
“Just hard enough for him to be kept busy for an hour or two,” Toph assured. “We’ll have plenty of time to sit back and enjoy our chocolate without those shitheads hanging around.”
“It’s a good thing everyone else is in town today,” Zuko hummed, “although it really was surprising how Sokka turned down going shopping.”
“I guess he just really wanted to sharpen all his weapons,” Toph shrugged, languidly placing another small chunk onto her tongue. “Only made it a pain in the ass for us, though.”
Zuko laughed again, rummaging around for the block of eighty percent. They only busted out their secret chocolate stash when everyone else was busy. It was a pact they had made before they returned from their last shopping trip. Six kids with healthy appetites (especially Sokka) only meant that all the chocolate they bought would be whittled down to nothing within the span of a day. At a push.
“Sparky, pass me some of that chili chocolate.”
“I thought you didn’t like it?”
“Don’t question me,” Toph snapped her fingers before wiggling her open hand at him. Zuko obliged, breaking off a piece and putting it in her hand.
“We need to go back to that shop, sometime. I wanna try that passionfruit one you were talking about.”
“Sure,” Zuko smiled indulgently. “That does mean we’ll have to volunteer for grocery shopping again, though.”
“It’s a small price to pay.” Toph waved him off, chocolate still in hand.
Zuko stared down at the chili-speckled block in his hands, thinking of a time when his cousin would smuggle him out of the palace so they could browse their favourite chocolaterie and dare each other to try the weirdest flavours and combinations.
“Yeah,” Zuko said, blinking away the slight prickle in his eyes. “It’s a really small price.”
Toph was nervous. She wasn’t often nervous. She could probably count on one hand how many times she had been the type of nervous that brought a fluttering feeling in her gut, sweat to slick her palms, and induce a fidgety, twitchy sensation in her limbs as if they weren’t sure how to settle into their normal positions anymore.
She had felt nervous when her parents brought her out of her rooms to meet someone outside of the family or the estate’s retinue of staff for the first time.
She had felt nervous before her very first Earth Rumble Six competition (that was as fast to dissipate as it took for her to wipe out the other competitors).
She had felt nervous when she escaped the Beifong estate to join the Avatar in his mission to bring balance to the world. She’d fantasized escaping before of course, but it was a whole different thing to actually do it.
The point is, Toph has only ever felt nervous in exceptional circumstances. But this wasn’t the nauseating, oh-holy-hell-what-do-I-do kind of nervous; this was the type that left you feeling giddy and excited yet lip-gnawingly anxious in anticipation.
She chose a warm evening to do it. It was a few hours after dinner, when everyone else had already retired to their respective bedrooms in Zuko’s family’s vacation home except for her and Zuko himself. He was sitting out on the porch idly, heartrate and breathing steady and even.
“Hey, Sparky?” Toph called out, making her way over to him and clutching the precious piece of parchment paper in her hands.
“Hi, Toph.” His voice was devoid of any hint of nervousness. Instead, it was brimming with content and relaxation. She felt her lips quirk up involuntarily.
“I got something to show you.”
She plonked herself down next to him and could feel his head perk up, interest piqued.
She picked at the edges of the parchment, a new wave of nervousness washing over her. It wasn’t much; it really wasn’t. She shouldn’t need to make such a big deal out of it, but… but it was a new part of her identity, and she wanted to share it with the person who taught her.
Even though the alphabet was becomingly increasingly familiar to her, even though she could now read short stories, she wasn’t yet adept at stringing words together coherently enough to pour out everything she was feeling and thinking into speech.
Instead, she handed over the parchment in her hands.
Zuko took it from her with reverently and she heard him slowly, carefully, unfurl the delicate paper.
A sharp intake of breath.
“Toph –” his voice wavered; with what, she wasn’t sure. “Is this…?”
She scuffled her feet against the floorboards of the porch.
“Yeah,” she turned to face Zuko, milky eyes pinpointing his voice. “The first word I wrote by myself. I thought – I thought I might as well dedicate it to my teacher – one of my best friends.”
A choking sound erupted from Zuko’s throat, raw and unbidden.
Despite herself, Toph felt a flush rise to her cheeks. She’d only hesitated for a scant quarter of a second before she resolved to insert the stylus into the opening of the slate. It wasn’t something that required a lot of thought to go into, she didn’t think. Not when she was confident that she’d never regret expending her first written word on this – on the person who had patiently sat down and taught her the alphabet letter by letter until she knew it as well as she knew the dirt underneath her feet.
So she had brought out her precious writing supplies and decided to try her hand at forming her first word without help. And once she started, she couldn’t conceive stopping. Not until the word – the name – had been marked into the paper like a physical representation of the ties that bonded them together.
“It’s amazing, Toph.” Zuko finally managed to say, the words wrenched out with more feelings than he could contain in his body.
“Just like the real person.” She replied quietly, solemnly. She’d already paid him one of the highest compliments she could, what was one more?
A dry crackle of laughter, and the sound of someone surreptitiously wiping their eyes against their sleeve. She didn’t point it out, make fun of it, elbow him and ridicule him (gently) for being such a softie.
No, not when it would be hypocritical of her to do any of that right here, right now.
“… Thank you. I’m honoured.”
“You can show your gratitude by getting it framed,” she jested, punching him in the arm to convey all she couldn’t say out loud.
“I will. I definitely will.” He promised, rubbing the aching spot with a reverence. Toph didn’t even need to use her seismic senses to know he was telling the truth.
She grinned, leaning into his side now, leeching off the warmth that radiated off him in waves and letting it drive away the cold nip in the air. Zuko carefully, like he was handling a delicate egg rather than a piece of parchment, placed it down to the side and wrapped an arm around her, increasing his body temperature so that she might be more comfortable.
It was hard to remember that for all of Toph’s towering, larger-than-life presence, she was still small enough to nestle into his side like a missing puzzle piece.
He’d always wondered if this was what siblings with healthy relationships would do. Certainly, he’d seen Katara and Sokka snuggle up with one another on particularly cold nights, or casually sling a limb across the other person’s body, or jokingly shove and push at each other with absolutely no hint of genuine malice behind the action.
There were a lot of factors leading up to what he did next – it could’ve been the nostalgia seeing siblings interacting with each other like how they should, or the little warmth that had settled next to him, or even the parchment paper still sitting by his side, unassuming at first glance but carrying a message that contained a million meanings. Hell, maybe it was all of the above. Whatever the reasons were, he found himself burrowing his head on top of Toph’s and voicing something that had been stewing inside him for Agni knows how long.
“I’ve always wanted a little sister who doesn’t want to kill me,” Zuko admitted into her hair, his hopes soft and fragile, like they were pieces of gravel she could easily render into dust.
But she doesn’t do that. She takes the fraying edges of his hope and moulds them into something solid and unyielding, with a gentler touch than anything she’s ever done before.
“And I’ve always wanted a kick-ass older brother.”
He smiles, then. And Toph can see it. She can see it in the way his hold tightens around her in confirmation, in the way his heart skips a beat before settling into an even, pounding rhythm, in the way his bones seem to melt and he curls around her like he’s made of water instead of fire, in the way he breathes with her and doesn’t push her when she doesn’t want to be, like how the breeze shuffles through the mountains, caressing the rockfaces but never changing them because they don’t need nor want to be changed.
He doesn’t say anything because he understands, and she doesn’t reply because she knows he understands.
Typically, his feelings are loud and so are hers.
But they’re quiet when it matters.