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She feels it every time.
The group would barge in (i.e. Toph and Sokka would barge in) usually in the evening after a day of travel for diplomatic affairs, publicity in their unity, but mostly to see Zuko looking goofy in his royal attire as he welcomes them with open arms. They enjoy their visits, and Zuko has become considerably more enjoyable to be with over the years. Only one thing feels off.
When they arrive, Toph feels the drums of his heart. Going far faster than any average heart. At first she dismisses it as the excitement of seeing them again. But it continues. They would all be a good distance from him, far enough to be out of his sight, and once they meet Toph could feel his heartbeat instantly accelerate. He turns and looks at them, and it’s there. He spars with them, meditates, dines, walks, and it stays strong.
When they depart, his heart slows and saddens.
It doesn’t bother her at first, but as it continues over several months she becomes more and more curious. The war ended four years ago. They have become old friends. What about them could offer so much excitement?
Or one of them?
Toph stands up abruptly and walks determinedly down the hallway, knocking over several servants standing in her path. Their good old friend Zuko is fed up with being just a friend to a certain somebody. And she’s going to find out who it is.
Her first guess is Katara.
Toph reasons her way through it. Katara’s strong and willful, both a healer and a warrior. She would be a great mother, both to her family and her nation. Albeit, she and Zuko have a…difficult history together, but maybe some people like that sort of thing. Wild rolls of hate in the sack, or something.
She can feel Zuko rise at sunrise every morning to take his bath. Katara wakes some time later after late-night water-bending. It’s a stretch, and maybe too forward for either of their tastes, but Toph has never been one for subtlety.
“Katara!” She yells into the girl’s ear the minute she feels Zuko step into his bath. “Katara, you gotta come quick!”
“Wha…what? What’s the matter?”
“It’s Zuko! From the sounds of it, I think he’s burned himself! Come on, you gotta help him!”
Toph leads as Katara runs to find her spirit water and scurries after her. They come skid across to corners and arrive at the door of the Fire Lord’s posh bathroom. “Come on, he’s in there!”
“Alright, Zuko,” Katara enters and calls mid-jog, “What’ve you done thi—AHHHH!”
That’s when Toph feels Katara skid onto a small puddle and slide the few feet left straight into Zuko’s scalding hot bath.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
“WHAT AM I DOING HERE? SAVING YOU!”
“FROM…FROM….” Katara trails off to see a very safe, very red, very nude Zuko desperately trying to recover some of his modesty.
Wild, passionate sex time! Toph thinks to herself.
“Out,” Zuko snaps, weakly adding, “um, please. And close the door.”
“Right,” Katara turns around quickly. “My apologies.”
As they walk away from Zuko’s grumbling and the sounds of running water, Katara glares daggers at Toph. “You told me he was in trouble!”
“Oops,” She shrugs off-handly, “made a mistake.”
Operation Nekkid fails miserably.
Zuko can’t seem to face Katara, let alone talk to her, for days after that little fiasco. Toph figures that if Zuko were secretly in love with her, he would’ve gotten over that by now and moved on to bigger, better things.
That’s why her second guess is Aang.
It doesn’t surprise her, after she works it out in her head. Zuko went from being obsessed about capturing him to being obsessed about avoiding him to being obsessed about training him. Far too much obsession and thought about one person to be healthy. And the two have become close friends ever since the war ended, sometimes closer than even Aang and Katara. Toph readies her second plan. Operation Smush.
“Hey, where are Katara and Sokka?” Aang asks, looking around. The three are outside in the courtyard prepared for their sparring. Toph stretches her fingers and toes lazily as Zuko sits beside her and meditates.
“I told them they didn’t have to come,” Zuko tries to say off-handly, avoiding Aang’s questioning eyes.
“Who needs a bunch of water to turn this whole fight into a mud pie, anyway?” Toph stands and readies her stance. “Let’s do this!”
The sparring goes fine. Aang employs air at nearly every twist and turn but doesn’t let go of the element of surprise, unleashing fire and moving the earth beneath them whenever he thinks it’ll make them jump back a little. Zuko never lets go of his rhythm, steadying his fire backwards and forwards, always sure of watching both of his opponents after a life of betrayal and mistrust.
Toph bends from afar, bringing the two unknowingly closer and closer together…
“Hey guys, I have an idea!” She suddenly shouts out at one point. The split-second pause she feels as the two turn to blink up at her is all she needs. Before they know it, she has them crashing together in a giant trap of stone. Her dome of rock holds. Their bodies are squeezed together within it. She has to admit, it’s pretty marvelous.
“Toph, what are you doing?” Aang’s muffled voice comes through.
“Strength test! Try to beat me!”
“I can’t fire-bend out of here, I would blow us up!” Zuko’s equally muffled and enraged voice permeates. “Aang, can’t you earth-bend this?”
“I’m trying! It’s kind of hard to move in here!”
“You defeated my father, one of the most powerful benders in the world, and you can’t get us out of a stupid rock?”
“Maybe it’s because you’re squishing me! Move over!”
“Just take your arm and—”
“Stop, you’ll twist my arm off!”
“What if you moved this leg here—”
Toph awaits. Any minute now, and she will be able to uncover a most embarrassing, a most compromising, a most wildly awkward and sexual position. She’s almost sure of it. Any minute now.
“Alright, that means I win!” Toph cries, abruptly letting down the stone. “Now look what we have…”
She trails off when she sees the two still squashed together, shoulder touching shoulder, nothing out of the ordinary and completely annoyed heartbeats hammering at their chests.
“Toph…” Aang begins ominously.
“Hey, nice fighting Twinkle Toes, Sparky, see you guys later!”
Operation Smush went terribly disappointingly.
Toph sighs to herself at dinner, Zuko now allowing himself to talk to Katara again but increasingly awkward about Aang. It’s a wonder how he faces any diplomatic situation.
“Are you gonna eat that?” Sokka asks, pointing eagerly at her food.
“Take it,” She snaps, shoving her roast duck in front of him.
“…Ew! I don’t want duck! How about those deliciously spicy jellyfish legs imported from good ol’ Southern Water Tribe?”
“You point at something, and you expect me to know exactly what you’re talking about even though I can’t see?” Toph growls. “How many years have we known each other again? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
Sokka pulls a face, but Zuko switches the two dishes before he has the chance to make a not-so-wise comment. “I don’t need sparring at my dinner table, too.”
“That was a very Avatar-like move,” Sokka says wisely. “I bet it’s because you have Roku’s blood in you, making you a descendent of all the Avatars and having some of the power in you, making Aang not the only Avatar but the father of many little ones. Aang, you could form an army of Avatars from all your past lives’ relatives!”
“During an era of peace,” Katara snorts. “Wise move, Sokka.”
“An army of peace! It’s—”
“A fine, but completely misguided idea,” Zuko finishes. Though he smiles slightly. Toph raises an eyebrow. He’s right, there’s an idea.
She wouldn’t know why Zuko would be in love with a sarcastic, meat-obsessed, comedic failure like Sokka of the Water Tribe…but desperate times call for desperate measures. This has to be the answer Toph’s been waiting for.
“Zuko, how about we go shopping after dinner?” Toph suggests.
“I’m not sure, I might have work to do…”
“You, me, and Sokka,” Toph grins. “Come on, time to stop being cooped up in here and look at some swords.”
“…Alright,” Zuko agrees hesitantly. His heart beats faster instantly.
“Yes!” Sokka exclaims. “Time for the warriors to get back in the game!”
Operation Double Broadsword. Two warriors from warring nations, first meeting when they were both merely sixteen, taking the war seriously from opposing sides yet not understanding it completely. Both brought up to fight and make their families proud.
It’s worth a shot.
Toph sighs. She doesn’t quite like it as much as Katara or Aang, and shopping feels considerably more boring than being naked in a tub or being crushed in a boulder, but she feels Zuko’s elated mood through his footsteps. Maybe it’s Sokka after all. The two exchange their knowledge of weapons as they browse, talking and arguing and still having the edge of competition. It’s almost adorable. It could actually be Sokka.
“I think I’m gonna ask the shopkeeper about this one,” Sokka says, walking away with a sleek new nihonto in his hands, leaving Zuko’s nervous heartbeat at Toph’s mercy.
“Alright, spit it out,” Toph says the minute they’re out of Sokka’s earshot.
“You like Sokka don’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“You don’t like Katara walking in on you naked, you don’t like Aang all up against you, but the minute I ask if you wanna go shopping with Sokka, you jump at the chance and abandon your work—”
“Wait,” Zuko interrupts, “Have you been planning all this?”
“But,” He argues, “I don’t like—”
“Don’t lie to me, Sparky,” Toph growls, prodding his chest. “Trust me, I can tell. Your heart beats faster whenever we’re around. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
She feels him sag a little in defeat.
“Now, it’s Sokka, isn’t it?”
And he’s not lying. Toph’s eyes widen. This couldn’t be. “Say that again?”
“No!” He says. With more substance.
“Damn,” She mutters. “And it’s not Aang?”
“Not even Katara?”
“What?” Zuko splutters.
“Just checking,” Toph shrugs. She narrows her eyes. This doesn’t make any sense. “Then who is it?”
“I’d…rather not tell you,” He says rather uneasily.
“Just spit it out!”
“What do you think?” He shouts in her face before stomping out, just as Sokka moves back to join them.
“Wow, sometimes it feels like he’s never changed,” Sokka sighs, staring at the angry Fire Lord acting like the angry Prince again. “Toph? Are you okay? You look a little red in the face.”
“I’m fine,” Toph mumbles, pushing her bangs out of her face and urging her body to cool itself. “Come on, we better go.”
Dawn before the group sets to depart back their separate ways, Toph bangs on Zuko’s bedroom door.
“Come to join me in my bath?” Zuko asks upon opening it and seeing Toph standing outside. “Or stuff me in a rock?”
“Haha,” Toph laughs sarcastically. “Listen…I’m going back to visit my family, and…” She trails off a little, wondering how to continue. “And they wouldn’t mind a visit from the Fire Lord, that’s all I’m saying.”
Zuko listens, then smiles slightly. “I’m sure I wouldn’t mind dropping by.”
“Great, that’s all I wanted to say,” Toph turns around quickly, but before she can stop herself she adds, “So…you like me?”
She waits through a long pause, when finally Zuko says cheerfully, “Nope, not at all!” and slams the door shut from his nervous heart. Toph smirks.