Zuko wonders if, had the war not shoved them together, like a storm smashing ships into port, he and Toph would still have become friends. If there had been no war. No family to keep them separate and silent. Would they still have met?
“You’re thinking too loudly,” Toph says.
“I thought you were blind, not telepathic.”
Toph just grins toothily at him, which is scarier than if she had answered.
Toph grabs a goblet from a passing waiter, dumps the drink in a potted plant, and throws the empty cup into the air. With a curl of her fingers, the goblet twists in on itself, all the intricate carvings smoothed flat. It reshapes into a sphere. A rectangle. A mace with alarmingly pointed spikes.
“You’re making my guards uncomfortable,” Zuko says. There’s only two of them, dressed in browns and muted reds, chatting with the Kyoshi Warriors on the other side of the ballroom. Izumi keeps glancing back at them, eyes fixed on Toph.
“I’m making a lot of people uncomfortable, sparky. It’s a talent.”
An Earth Kingdom general pulls away from a cluster of noblemen, and strides in their direction. Toph curls her wrist. The metal warps into an angled throwing knife, almost as sharp as her smile.
The general makes a sharp detour to the food table.
Zuko laughs. “Make brass knuckles next.”
Toph does, and even adds extra spikes, because she always goes above and beyond. “I thought you hated when I made your guards nervous.”
“I didn’t say I hated it. I was just pointing it out.”
They lapse into silence, surveying the rest of the ball. Two blots of blue break up the sea of green and browns: Sokka is chatting with a group of noblemen. He seems to be recounting stories from the war, with Katara by his side, offering corrections and eye-rolls in equal measure.
Momo is happily being fussed over by a group of cooing noblewomen, much like Aang, who was swamped by people almost as soon as the ball began.
“Do you think we should rescue him?” Zuko asks.
Toph snorts. “Who, Aang? Nah, he’s fine. He secretly loves the attention. If he gets overwhelmed, Katara will dig him out.”
“And if Katara is the one that gets overwhelmed?”
“Then she’ll tell everyone around her to back off. Did you notice the flask on her hip? She’s not afraid of using it.”
The long folds of Katara’s dress hid any evidence of a flask. That was another reason why Toph’s presence in these green-gold halls settled him: if there was a threat, she could sense it before anyone else.
Toph’s metal ball flattens into a thin cylinder. She grabs it and lightly hits him over the head. “You could learn a thing or two from Sugar Queen.”
Zuko compulsively smoothes down his hair, checks that his crown is secure and straight. It’s been almost a year since his coronation, but he still feels like that teenager that had returned to royal life after years at sea, uneven hair barely long enough to force into a topknot. After months of face masks and hair treatments, he looks more like a Fire Lord.
Even if he still doesn’t feel one.
“I can’t start bending in the middle of a ball, Toph,” Zuko says. “Half these people are still scared of firebenders. It’d restart the war.”
“They’re a bunch of pansies if they think your sparks are worth going to war over.” Toph pokes him sharply in the ribs. “You need to stand up for yourself, firefly. You can’t let a bunch of stuffed shirts intimidate you.”
“They don’t intimidate me.” Toph scoffs, and he amends, “Okay, maybe some of them do. But it’s not because of who they are. I don’t care what a bunch of nobles or military officials or even other royalty think, especially when most of them spent the war hiding, but … I don’t know. It gets to me, sometimes.”
Toph goes quiet. Then she says, “It’s never nice when someone tries to make you feel small. Especially when they’re grown adults who should know better.”
Zuko blows out a breath. “Yeah. It’s--yeah.”
Toph could say something else. Something about growing up under the stifling attention of a parent that wanted you to be something you were not, about the way it could transform you. How, even years later, after you had grown up and out of that cage, the harsh attention of adults could make you feel like a child again, small and floundering and not enough.
She doesn’t, though. Toph leans further into his side, treating him more like a very bony sofa rather than a young sovereign, and says, “Bet Katara drenches Sokka for over-exaggerating a war story.”
Zuko considers this. “I think she’s going to get jealous of everyone surrounding Aang first.”
“Loser has to eat a plate of those raw platypus-fish eggs.”
Zuko goes to track down something strong enough to get the taste of platypus-fish eggs out of his mouth, and gets distracted by Aang, who is worried about Katara’s disappearance. He points him towards the balcony, the direction Katara had stormed off after dousing Sokka in water. Aang thanks him and slips out of the ballroom. And then it’s Zuko’s turn to slip quickly through the crowds. Now that he’s alone, it looks like several annoyed people want to talk to him, and he doesn’t feel up to political mind games tonight.
He spots Toph at the buffet table. There a knot of noblewomen nearby, and from their tittering and side-glances, he can tell they don’t have good intentions. Zuko quickens his pace.
A noblewoman makes Toph look up. Zuko isn’t close enough to hear the beginning of what she says, but it makes Toph rock back a little, drop the sticky truffles and wipe her fingers on a napkin instead of the tablecloth, eyes downcast.
“--some kind of decorum,” Zuko hears when he’s close enough. “No self-respecting woman dresses like an orphan boy who sleeps with the animals. You look like you’ll be of courting age, soon. No man would want you like this.” She laughs. A mean sound. “Though I doubt anyone would want to court you, even if you were in fine silks.”
A violent blush rises on Toph’s cheeks. She opens and closes her mouth, trying and failing to form words.
Toph can handle this. After a minute to gather her thoughts and shove down the humiliation, Toph would destroy this noblewoman. Zuko knows that. But he also knows what it’s like to constantly come across people like this, who hate you on principle, just because they can. How every encounter can wear on your nerves until you just feel tired.
And, well. He’s right there.
“Lady Yin,” Zuko says in that smooth, projected voice he’s been practising since he became Fire Lord, “I didn’t know you were going to be at this ball. Your family exports goods across the Earth Kingdom, correct?”
The noblewoman whirls around and flinches when she sees him, standing straight-backed and serious in crimson robes, five-pronged crown glinting under the lanterns. Normally, he would resent the flicker of fear that passes over her face. Now, it just makes him angrier.
Lady Yin glances at the nobles behind her. They stay silent and avoid her eyes, purposely not looking at Zuko.
She fumbles, unsure of cross-national etiquette, of what to do with the Fire Lord’s attention pinned solely on her. Finally, she manages, “Yes, Fire Lord.”
Zuko crosses over to the buffet table. She steps back. He ignores her, pretending to examine the food selection casually, like this move isn’t calculated perfectly to put him between Lady Yin and Toph.
He adopts an air of unaffected grace. He tries to stand the way Toph stands during Aang’s earthbending lessons, tall and immovable but also impossibly lazy. Toph has more power than most guests here can comprehend, and yet these nobles think that they can laugh at her?
“And, if I remember correctly,” Zuko goes on, “your family exports to Gaoling and Ba Sing Se?”
“Among other places, Fire Lord.”
“Of course. Earth Kingdom geography escapes me sometimes. Aside from our colonies, of course.” This is not true. Zuko has combed their docks, walked through war-ravaged villages, almost starved on their desert sands. But these nobles don’t know that. “Master Bei Fong, your family resides in Gaoling, don’t they?”
“They do,” Toph says in a smaller voice than Zuko is used to.
Lady Yin flinches. As Zuko suspected: she didn’t know Toph was a Bei Fong.
“I’m sure it’s a lovely place.” Zuko selects a truffle. Places it in his mouth. Pretends to think as he chews. “Lady Yin, did you know that airships were set to burn down Ba Sing Se on the day of Sozin’s comet? Master Toph took them down, alongside Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors. A whole air strike, taken down by three teenagers.”
This is a calculated risk. Zuko tries not to bring up the Fire Nation’s past horrors around foreign figures. He doesn’t want them to think he’s threatening them, or bragging about past atrocities.
(It also just makes things awkward. At the last peace summit, Zuko had accidentally let slip that he had swam under the Northern Water Tribe using turtle-seal tunnels in the middle of a siege. A tense silence had befallen the entire table. No one seemed to care that Zuko hadn’t been a part of the armada, or that he had already apologised for trying to kidnap Aang, or that he was only pointing this out because it was a possibly dangerous flaw in the Northern Water Tribe’s security.)
Now, though, Zuko doesn’t mind stoking these people’s fear. Not if it changes the way Toph had been standing--shoulders around her ears, bangs falling in front of her eyes, as though she’s ashamed--when these noblewomen confronted her.
“Any other earthbender on those ships,” Zuko goes on, “would have been powerless. But Master Toph could still bend. Right, Toph?”
Zuko steps aside so Toph is visible. She holds up the destroyed goblet she had been playing with at the beginning of the ball. With a flick of her wrist, it is remodelled into a face--a woman with a rather constipated expression. Toph claps her hands together sharply. The face is reduced to a thin sheet.
“Lady Yin,” Zuko says. “What was it you said you exported again?”
Lady Yin swallows heavily. She looks like she wants the earth to open up and swallow her--something Toph could manage quite easily.
“Nickel,” Zuko echoes. “And that’s…?”
“A metal, Fire Lord.”
“Interesting,” Zuko says, popping another truffle into his mouth. He wishes he had a cup of tea. Not because he likes the taste, but because he has seen Iroh sip at tea while verbally dismantling people. It’s an effective weapon. “I should leave you two to talk, then. You must have a lot to say to Master Toph.”
Zuko sweeps away. Before he’s out of earshot, he hears Lady Yin stuttering her way through an apology.
Toph finds him out on the balcony later on. Sokka and Katara are there, bickering, and Aang is fluttering around the siblings like he wants to intervene but is too afraid to. Toph doesn’t say hello, just slips under his arm and grabs onto the front of his robes.
“You’re warm,” she says loudly, before anyone can accuse of her cuddling. “And it’s cold out. You’re convenient.”
“Convenient,” Zuko says, eyeing the nobles weaving through the gardens below them, dressed in silk and thin linen. “Sure.”
“Shut up, Sparky.”
They let their friends’ bickering wash over them. They will have to leave the peaceful warmth of the balcony and rejoin the ball soon, but for now, they can take a moment just to be together. Five teenagers who stopped a hundred year war. Five people who are repairing a world broken from decades of violence. Five kids who miss being kids.
“Hey, Zuko,” Toph says into his robes. “Thanks.”
Zuko puts a hand on top of her head. “Anytime, Toph.”