the toph and zuko fic that absolutely no one but me asked for (but i asked very nicely so here it is)
beware probable inaccuracies to canon and in descriptions of blindness
On the third morning in a row they wake up like this, they don't even need to exchange a look before agreeing (though any literal looks would have been one-sided and therefore admittedly moot, considering).
"Emergency measures," Zuko confirms, and he doesn't even startle at the way his voice comes out anymore. It does still take more concentration than it should to shift his feet into position – at least he remembers to go barefoot, now. "Uncle's already up, I think that's him in the tearoom upstairs."
Toph punches him in the arm. Fortunately there isn't anyone around to witness the (apparent) act of Fire Nation brutality, but also: ouch. "You're gonna have to do better than that, Sparky, I have a reputation to maintain!"
"You're the one with the firebending now," Zuko grumbles, not at all under his breath. "Besides, I had to stop you from accidentally sparking off about four separate international incidents yesterday alone, so – hey!"
Toph doesn't stop pulling Zuko along the corridor, but at least she does slow down, and he suspects the stride hadn't even been intentional to begin with, just habit from usually being the shortest one in their group.
"Wouldn't want you forgetting how to do your job, o great Lord Not-Sparky," she retorts, but there's no heat in it besides her customary snark, and despite everything Zuko finds himself weirdly grateful that it's the two of them stuck in this situation and not anyone else.
(That doesn't stop him from gleefully whispering I told you so! when Uncle turns out to be right where he'd said he would be, but Zuko figures he's entitled to that much.
And if Toph is rolling her eyes, at least she does it silently, so. It's a win-win, really.)
The first morning, Toph wakes up with the feeling that something is off, but it isn't until she opens her eyes (not her first priority upon waking, for obvious reasons) that she realises how off.
It takes her three tries to swing her legs off the side of the bed and onto the floor – how the hell is her depth perception somehow worse with vision? – and the chill of unfamiliarly-patterned tile is what drives it home for her.
Not that the rest of it hadn't been enough already: Toph knows the dimensions of her own body very well, thank you, because she'd always be running into walls otherwise. And then there's the matter of not so much what she's seeing as the fact that she's seeing it at all, and not in the way she usually means the term.
But anyway. This definitely isn't the room she fell asleep in, because that one had been heated and this one isn't at all, because apparently firebenders were above needing or wanting things like cozy heating when they slept, however comfortable it might be. Which means that this is a firebender's room… unsurprising, since they're in the Fire Nation and all, but Toph is also starting to suspect that this is Zuko's room. She's still trying to figure out the shitton of information her eyes are suddenly tossing at her, but she's pretty sure that what she eye-sees matches the layout she'd mapped out before with her earthbending – which by the way is definitely missing and not just her feet being temporarily numbed by the cold floor, and it's not like Toph is freaking out or anything, but.
But. Okay. One thing at a time, Toph decides, and looks around until she spots something that has to be a mirror, hanging on a wall halfway across the room because of course it is.
Several false starts later, she eventually settles on memorising the distance and direction to it, before squeezing her eyes almost shut as she walks so that only a narrow band gets through because honestly, too much information. No wonder sighted people were always so distracted.
Toph only opens her eyes again once she's finally standing in front of the mirror, and – holy fuck, she thinks.
Not because she's Zuko. Or not just that, rather, not even that, because she is somehow in a body that she's certain has to be Zuko's the same way she'd known this was his room.
She's heard that the scar on his face is bad, had even felt it for herself – how big it was, how much of his face it covered, raised ridges and unnatural smoothness that she would've recognised as wrong even if she hadn't touched anyone's face before, but.
But now that she's seeing it, the scar stands out far more than she ever thought it did, a livid patch stark against the rest of his features that she struggles to tear her gaze away from, and if this is what it means to have sight, have colours, Toph thinks she might not want it anymore.
Which is when she realises that if she's here in this body it has to mean that – shit. Zuko.
(The first morning, Zuko had woken to utter pitch darkness that refused to abate or even change no matter how many times he blinked or frantically rubbed at his right eye. He'd probably have fallen spectacularly on his face if he'd moved to stand – but Zuko hadn't even tried to. Couldn't, not with the blackness pressing down on his limbs like far-too-physical fear.
He'd managed to simultaneously convince himself that Ozai had locked him in some windowless cell for good and thrown away the key, or that he'd finally lost his vision to the burn damage like the medic had warned Uncle might happen all those years ago, in quiet harried words where they thought he couldn't hear.
Then a hand had landed on his shoulder, and Zuko would've startled if there'd been anything left in him to startle, but then a voice – his voice? – had hissed by his ear, and he'd made out the words "Sparky" and "come on" and –
And that hadn't magically made everything better except in the ways it had, because he still couldn't figure out what it meant but at least he wasn't alone in the darkness anymore.)
Really, it'd been plain luck that Toph had woken up so much earlier than usual. Or not, because apparently firebenders woke with the sunrise and she's a firebender now, and this is already shaping up to be a pain, didn't Sparky or Uncle ever want to just sleep in until noon?
Apparently not, judging from the way Sparky had already been awake (awake and well into panicking) by the time she located the set of guest rooms that she'd been sleeping in just last night. Firebenders, honestly.
("It's habit, I guess?" Sparky had explained afterwards with a sheepish look, so okay, maybe this was more a Lord Rise-and-Shine thing than a general firebender thing.)
Anyway. Whatever the reason, it gives them enough time to figure out a plan before the rest of everybody wakes up, at least once she finally gets Zuko to calm the hell down.
"Sorry," he mumbles, still breathing in that careful firebendy pattern which would've been a dead giveaway to her. But at least he looks not-freaked-out now (in Toph's definitely nonexpert opinion, anyway) and she figures they can probably depend on most people around them to be as unobservant as they usually are. "Any idea how this happened?"
"Nope. We could always take the day off, see if this fixes itself by tomorrow," she offers with amazing generosity.
"Absolutely not!" Zuko answers immediately, because – oh yeah, right, workaholic tendencies are another firebender and/or Sparky thing. "I – you – we have a meeting with all the major Fire Nation officials this morning, and there's that delegation from the colonies after that, and then – "
(Toph sighs. Couldn't blame her for trying, at least.)
They end up settling on having Toph-as-Zuko lead Zuko-as-Toph around for now, because Toph has standards, and she refuses to let herself be seen bumping into walls all day long.
Plus, even waking up early hadn't given them enough time for more than a superspeed crash course on Fire Lording, so of course Zuko insists on staying with her so she doesn't mess up and offend all the world's leaders or something.
"One wrong word could – could restart the war," Zuko squawks like the baby turtleducks that the kitchen staff pretend not to see their Fire Lord regularly stealing bread for.
"Heard you the first twenty times, Your Shortiness," Toph says breezily, patting his head – and just to be clear, she's still not gonna forgive Sokka for all the times he's used her as an elbow rest, but she (or her body, at least) is really just the right height for it.
(There are a few raised eyebrows when the Fire Lord doesn't walk into the meeting chambers alone, but it probably helps that basically everyone present has other much higher priorities, and most of them are already resigned to the Avatar's group acting weird by default anyway.
Which is to say that no one questions the arrangement until they break for lunch, and then not even until Aang bounces over to join them from who-knows-where, because Toph's pretty sure that the A in Aang (and airbender, and Avatar) stands for audacity. "Toph, are you holding on to Zuko's shirt?"
Toph – actual Toph – opens her mouth to give a bullshit answer, but Zuko beats her to it. "Duh. See, somebody here lost a bet, which means he's gotta be my seeing-eye person until I say so. Right, Sparky?"
Toph's reluctantly impressed. Not only had Zuko clearly thought about this, he'd even said it with all the snark she would have, complete with a disturbingly wide grin (she'd looked).
She gives one of those indistinct-but-not-really-upset grumbles that Sparky uses a lot around them, and gradually falls behind the rest of the group so she can elbow him with her own rock-sharp grin (because she can confirm from experience that it's audible, even if not visible). "I didn't know you had that in you!"
"Yeah, well." Sparky rubs the back of his neck, his gaze darting away then back, and there's no aura of sass about him now. "You handled the meeting pretty well, all things considered. Especially that… Minister Takagi."
"You can just say 'asshole', y'know, it's not like you're the Fire Lord right now." Besides, it'd be way more accurate, with the deliberate way that minister had said something oily and barbed about Ozai that'd gone right over her head but still hit home anyway, judging from the way Zuko had tensed in the seat beside hers.
Toph had simply blinked slowly before savouring the brief but utter look of confusion as she responded to the rest of his speech while outright ignoring the comment like the completely irrelevant bait it clearly was.
Too bad, Minister Asshole. Better luck next time!
(And if her cheeks are vaguely warm from the compliment in the way she knows means a blush, Sparky can't see right now anyway, so it's all fine as long as she doesn't spontaneously combust from embarrassment.
…or from being a firebender. Is that even possible? Hopefully not.)
"But of course," Uncle says as he refills their teacups. "I would be glad to be your regent while you are on vacation, nephew. You scarcely needed to ask."
"Like I said, we're just going to Gaoling to speak with the Beifongs, and so Aang can do his Avatar thing before we route any of the withdrawing troops through there," Toph says, and Zuko can practically feel the annoyance rolling off her even if it's for entirely different reasons than his own would've been, in the same situation. (It does make for a more convincing act though.) "It's not a vacation."
"Of course it isn't," Uncle replies with great equanimity, while Zuko tries to figure out if his tea is cool enough to drink now that he can't judge by the steam rising from it. "It is good to see you taking better care of your health in spite of your heavy responsibilities, nephew. I hear that the clerks are overjoyed to have paperwork delegated to them again!"
Probably about as ecstatic as Toph herself was when she'd heard about that option, Zuko thinks to himself, and snorts at the thought.
(Honestly, it's not like the paperwork that reaches the Fire Lord's desk is anywhere near as complicated as the incomprehensible hell of requisition forms Zuko had constantly wrestled with aboard his ship, but Toph had still cheered when all of it got carted away to the clerks' office. "Why would you go through all that if you didn't have to? You should've done this ages ago!"
"How else was I gonna learn the details of what's going on?" Zuko had muttered, but he couldn't blame Toph for this one, since – well. Reading and writing hadn't been a big part of her education, as she'd put it. "I'd offer to do it myself, but…"
He'd trailed off, then buried his face in his hands because he was not finishing that sentence, because Toph Beifong might be the greatest earthbender of all time but she's also the worst influence to ever exist and apparently Zuko isn't even good at cracking blind jokes anyway. And he didn't even know whose expense it'd be at, right now.
Toph had just cackled like she'd known what he was thinking anyway.)
They manage to make their escape from Uncle almost one and a half pots of tea later.
"Is it just me," Zuko begins hesitantly once they're a safe distance down the corridor, "or did you also get the feeling that – "
"He knows?" Toph sounds like she's frowning. "Yeah. I mean, I guess it's not a big deal if he of all people finds out – but how, though? He's barely even been around the palace since this started!"
"Maybe he could… see it or something, I dunno." Zuko shrugs. "Uncle's been to the Spirit World before, he did say some stuff about it changing his awareness of things."
"But he's not the only one who's been there," Toph points out, before they both contemplate Aang for a moment. "Though maybe the only one without the attention span of a catterfly, yeah."
("Which reminds me, when's Sweetness due back from the North Pole?"
"Katara? In another ten days, if everything goes to plan. Why?"
"Because I'm gonna have her fix this shitty heartbeat of yours, I don't even care if we've swapped back by then! I already thought it sounded weird after the whole lightning thing, and you keep saying that it's fine but this is really not normal, we're just lucky you haven't had a heart attack doing your morning exercises or something equally ridiculous–")
They tell Aang what happened once Appa is up in the air and en route to Gaoling, but the airbender still sounds disbelieving for once, even after they land early to train and set up camp.
"Okay, you got me, very funny, no way you actually switched b– huh." Aang pauses, even keeps still for a moment. "Huh. You're being serious."
Zuko doesn't need earthbending to recognise the sound of Toph tapping her foot, and probably crossing her arms too. "Care to enlighten us, Twinkletoes?"
Aang bursts out laughing at that, so the nickname probably sounds as weird to him in Zuko's voice as it does to Zuko himself, though he goes back to being thoughtful afterwards. "I can see it a little if I concentrate, yeah – maybe it's an effect of the energybending, I dunno. Your colours are a little different to the usual earthbender and firebender ones, and I don't think they were like that before."
Zuko's pretty sure Toph is thinking the same thing he is (that still doesn't explain how Uncle found out) but out loud he only says, "Can we get started now, if you're done talking Avatar stuff?"
"Right!" Aang agrees with an enthusiastic bounce, and Zuko now really understands why Toph gave him that nickname. "So Zuko, you need me to teach you how to earthbend like you're actually Toph, and not you pretending to be Toph and earthbending like how you think Toph earthbends–"
"Yes, Aang," he interrupts, trying to sound longsuffering instead of laughing, then points unerringly at where Toph is lifting a foot. "And you're not going barefoot, Toph, I have a reputation to maintain!"
"It's not like anyone's looking," Toph mutters, but her shoes are still on when she puts her leg back down.
("Honestly, Zuko, I'm really impressed," Aang says as Toph lights the campfire for dinner, and this probably shouldn't feel comfortingly nostalgic but it does. "I mean, it's obvious now that I know what's going on, but you've actually been navigating really well? I think I'd have taken way longer to adapt if I had to see by earthbending alone, and I already know earthbending."
"It's surprisingly intuitive once you get the hang of it. And I think Toph's muscle memory stuck or something, otherwise I'd probably still be running into walls. Well, more walls," Zuko amends. "Besides, I guess it's sort of like when I was adjusting my newly shitty vision, after – after what Ozai did."
Zuko's briefly proud of himself when he barely even stumbles over that last part, until he realises that Toph has gone still across from him, and there's an alarming flash of heat that probably isn't the campfire.
"Uh." Aang sounds alarmed, and like he's staring. "Toph…?"
"Are you seriously telling me," Toph grits out between her teeth, "that my depth perception is so fucked up because you only have half your vision left."
"It's really closer to seventy percent," Zuko answers on reflex even as he facepalms both internally and externally because how in the name of Agni had he forgotten to tell Toph about this? Yes, it would've been obvious to anyone else, and it's simple fact to Zuko by this point, but of course Toph of all people wouldn't have realised that his eyesight was abnormal seeing as (ha) she'd never had vision before.
The ground trembles from sudden stomping. "That's it, forget Gaoling, we're going back to the capital now so I can kick Scumbag Lord's ass all over again – and no using earthbending against me, Twinkletoes!")
"Do you miss it?" Zuko asks, later that night.
No answer comes for a long moment, and he's starting to wonder if Toph's fallen asleep when he feels the rustle of her turning over.
"Which part, the earthbending? Or being a blind and helpless twelve-year-old girl?" The air quotes around those words are perfectly audible even if he can't see them, but neither of them have ever been much for rhetorical questions anyway so Toph barrels right on. "One more than the other, and you're damned lucky I'm well-educated nobility or I'd have thrown up all over your court etiquette by now."
Zuko tries to imagine Katara or Sokka (or possibly worse yet, Aang) trying to act as the Fire Lord and winces – they're amazing people and Zuko cares for them more than he knows what to do with, but he's also heard all about Sapphire and Wang Fire by now, and just. No. "Thanks for that, Toph, you've been doing a great job."
Toph punches him in the arm instead of saying you're welcome like a normal person. "No need to sound so surprised. You?"
"Hm?" he asks, before his brain catches up with his mouth a moment later. "Oh. I…"
Does he miss it, being the banished prince turned Fire Lord? Being not just Zuko but Zuko, son of Ursa and Ozai and everything that meant?
Does he miss having people look at him and see the scar on his face before everything else, see the pure golden eyes and assume everything it implied? (Not that he knew for sure how people looked at him now, not literally – but he'd seen enough of how they looked at Toph before, and it was always underestimation rather than exaggeration. And if it'd been just a year ago he would've been furious at that but now? Now, he's still offended on Toph's behalf because it's not fair, it really isn't, but he's… surprisingly okay with it, otherwise.)
Does he miss fire dancing on his palm, sun-warm but never burning?
"…not as much as I expected," Zuko says finally, and he doesn't know how much time has passed but he can feel Toph listening for an answer anyway. "Except for the firebending, but I guess earth's not too bad either."
(Zuko doesn't think he's ever going to react anything but poorly to people touching him without warning no matter whose body he's in, it's a fact he's fairly resigned to – but Toph's earthbending means that pretty much no one but airbenders can really take him by surprise, and there's only one of Aang. Fortunately.)
Toph snorts in a manner unbecoming of either lady or Fire Lord. "Well, fire sucks. If this keeps up, I might just have to become the greatest firebender of all time, too."
Zuko laughs. "I look forward to it," he says sincerely – this is the earthbender who'd learned from badgermoles, after all, even if she's also busy snickering at his unintentional pun. "Tell Aang to bring you to go meet the dragons sometime, I think you'd love them."
"Please. I'd rather ask Uncle instead, Twinkletoes would just be distracting." Fair point. "And you're coming with."
The Sun Warriors might sooner feed an earthbender to the dragons rather than grant an audience with them, but Zuko nods anyway. "Alright. Good night, Toph."
"Night, Sparky," comes the mumble in reply, already half-asleep, and Zuko closes his eyes.