Chapter 1: earth
"So," Toph began, "-Li."
"What?" Li asked, his tone curt and his posture just as guarded. He kept some distance away from her, his arms crossed as he leaned against the wall on the other side of the room. She couldn't tell with her earth sense just how tightly crossed said arms were, but she was pretty sure the answer was fairly. He was acting so wary that she was almost tempted to see what would happen if she shook the earth under him. You know, just a bit. Enough to keep him on his toes.
But she was still trying to be friendly, so she'd restrain herself.
"Tell me about yourself."
"That's... pretty vague." Li said, after remaining silent for long enough that she knew he'd been thinking his response over. "And I don't exactly owe you my whole life history."
"That's fair." Toph shrugged. She didn't exactly expect someone who lied about his own name to open up to her at the drop of a hat just because she'd found him a job.
Technically, he was still on a probationary period, according to her father. That was probably why they hadn't been left alone together, not yet. The guard lingering by the door was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, but the sheer amount of awkward radiating from Li made that pretty difficult, especially as the silence between them stretched on.
After a few more awkward minutes of it, Li apparently gave up on sulking and sat down- closer to her, but still far away enough that they weren't in each others bubbles. She had her knees pulled up to her chest- an improper way for a young lady to sit, but it allowed her to keep her feet flat on the floor, giving her a better feel for her surroundings. Li, on the other hand, crossed his legs in front of him, but she didn't doubt he could get up quickly if the situation called for it. She'd been keeping tabs on the way he moved, and she had to admit- he seemed pretty agile.
She'd also never met someone with such quiet footsteps before. It made her wonder how they'd even caught him sneaking in to begin with.
She wondered who'd taught him to be so quiet.
"So," Li slowly began, and she could sense him shifting slightly, "-it's... Toph, right?"
"Aw, you remembered my name." Toph grinned. "I'm flattered, Scruffy."
Li's hand darted up towards his hair again, and even though she didn't actually know what a frown looked like, she could imagine that was exactly the expression he was making. Clearly he was self-conscious about his hair.
Not a problem she could relate to, seeing as she had no idea what her own hair even looked like. She knew what it felt like, silky smooth from the oils that her mother insisted the servants use whenever they washed it. She didn't hate the feeling, but there was still something comforting about the feeling of dirt clinging to not just her hair, but to the rest of her. Maybe it was just an earthbender thing.
Speaking of bending...
"So," Toph asked, settling on something less vague, "-are you a bender?"
"No," he said, way too quickly to be anything but a lie, "-I'm not."
Toph tilted her head, her lips tugging downwards in a slight frown. Not only did it sound like a lie, it felt like one too. And yet... there was something off in the way he'd reacted. Something she couldn't quite place. Nevermind the fact that she didn't see any reason why someone would keep their bending a secret- unless they were an airbender, maybe, but she didn't think there were any of those left, and Scruffy felt too grounded for that, in spite of his too quiet footsteps.
Then again, he could also be a firebender.
Which... yeah, she guessed she could see why he might lie about that too. Her parents might try to keep her oblivious to the world outside the walls of their home, but that didn't actually mean she was oblivious. She knew there was a war going on, and that there had been one going on for the past one hundred years. She'd heard about the Fire Nation colonies, and the headway that they'd been making into the Earth Kingdom.
Even her parents, try as they might, couldn't hide the events of the Dragon of the West's six hundred day siege on Ba Sing Se from her. She'd be willing to bet that even the most remote villages in the Earth Kingdom had heard about that particular battle, even if no one in Ba Sing Se itself was actually willing to talk about it anymore.
(Honestly, some part of her almost wished he had conquered it. At least that way she'd never have to go to that terrible excuse for a city. Way too many rules.)
"What about you?" Li asked.
Toph blinked. She honestly hadn't expected him to ask her a real question. Guess he was making an effort after all.
"Sure am." Toph said. "I'm an earthbender."
The greatest in the world, she wanted to say, but she managed to bite her tongue. Just because she kind of liked Li, it didn't mean she was about to reveal all her secrets to him- especially not when he wasn't doing the same. And besides, she'd have to be a total idiot to say something like that within earshot of one of her parents' guards. Sure, Huan wasn't as insufferable as some of the others around here, but he still treated her like the delicate little blind girl everyone around here thought she was.
She hoped Li wouldn't start treating her like that eventually. She didn't know if she could stand that.
Li hummed in response. "I take it your parents-"
"-aren't?" Toph finished for him. "No. My grandmother was though, on my father's side. That's where I get it from, I think."
"Oh," Li said, "-that must be nice."
Toph couldn't help but snort, even if it wasn't exactly all that ladylike. "You really do have a way with words, Scruffy. Let me guess- you haven't had many friends."
She could feel Li bristle at her remark. "I have friends, I just-!"
He cut himself off, his shoulders slumping slightly. It was kind of alarming, really, how quickly the fight had gone out of him. "I just can't see them ever again. And they were more of my sister's friends anyways."
That last part had been muttered quietly underneath his breath, like he hadn't wanted her to hear it. Well, too bad, because her hearing was just as top notch as her earthbending. He would have to talk a lot quieter if he wanted her not to hear something.
"You have a sister?" Toph asked.
Yup. Judging from the way he tensed, Li definitely hadn't meant for her to hear that part.
"Yeah." Li said. "A younger sister. We didn't exactly get along."
There was a whole history spelled out in that simple statement, one that left her almost vaguely grateful she had no siblings of her own. Her parents could be insufferable enough- she couldn't imagine having another sibling around who would just treat her the same way. Maybe being an only child was lonely, but it was definitely preferable to that.
Or whatever the hell it was that had gone on between Li and his sister to leave such a raw ache to his voice. Probably better not to ask. Earthbending was all about listening and waiting, and right now, her listening skills were telling her to wait.
"Eh," Toph shrugged, "-that's how it is sometimes with family. Just cause you're related to them, doesn't mean things will always work out."
"Yeah," Li agreed, "-I guess it is."
And there was more of that awkward silence again. Gee, she knew what she'd said and all, but just how bad at making conversation was Li?
Okay, to be fair, she wasn't exactly an expert either- but she was pretty sure she was better at it than he was. But eh, they had just met. Maybe they'd get the hang of it yet. She'd never been one to back down from a challenge before, and something told her that Li wasn't the type to either.
"So, you ever see a badgermole before?" Toph asked.
Li shifted a little, as if he were looking up at her in surprise. "No. I've heard of them though. You have?"
"Oh, sure." Toph didn't even resist the urge to smirk. "I've seen them before."
Li audibly winced. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean-"
"Relax, I'm only teasing." Toph said. "You're so on edge."
"Sorry," Li apologized, making a transparent, if not effective, effort to relax, "-it's just been a rough few months."
That, she sensed, was the truth. If anything, it was probably an understatement. He might have told her parents that he was a simple refugee, but based on his heart rate when he'd said it, there was more to that story than just an orphan desperately trying to flee the war. Besides, from the way he talked about her, his little sister sounded like she was still alive- and not necessarily in any danger.
He was fleeing something, alright. She just didn't think it was the war.
But that was fine with her. Li was the first chance she had at actually making a friend since... well, forever, basically. And it was obvious he needed the work. She wasn't about to blow this for him- or for her, for that matter.
Which didn't mean she'd stop trying to unravel his secrets. It just meant that she wouldn't ask about them in the close presence of the guard. Especially if he really did turn out to be a secret firebender or something.
Speaking of the guard...
Those especially heavy footsteps heading this way could only belong to Yang. Curiously, she noted that Li seemed to turn his head towards the sound almost exactly at the same time she did- too close to being in sync for him to have just caught the motion of her head.
Yang was approaching from her left- Li's right. If it was his left, he might not have noticed. She'd been closely observing Li ever since they first met- one of the first things she'd picked up on was that he had good ears. Or ear, rather. It hadn't been until he'd been brought before both her parents to sort out his future here at the Beifong manor that she'd picked up on it. It was subtle, but whenever her mother began to speak, he would turn his head slightly so that he was facing her more directly.
Her mother had sat on the right. Li's left.
Something, she concluded, was clearly wrong with this left ear. Maybe that had been the source of her father's weird hesitation to label Li as being able-bodied.
Honestly, knowing that kind of just made him feel like more of a kindred spirit. People probably underestimated him too.
But ugh, back to Yang. She crinkled her nose slightly in distaste. If Huan was the most tolerable of the guards, then Yang was the worst. He was rude to the servants, and yet treated her like she was the most delicate blossom ever to bloom. Even worse was the fact that though his earthbending was so mediocre and boring that she was almost ashamed to share an element with him, he still thought he was good at it. In reality, Huan picked up most of the slack- Yang was just around to look big and beefy.
"Is the kid here?" Yang asked Huan, without any preamble. "Boss brought over someone to test his sword skills."
Toph frowned slightly at that. Her father had mentioned something like that, but she hadn't been sure if he was serious or not. He was kind of prone to saying things and then never following through on them, which wasn't exactly the same thing as lying.
Though from the feel of his heartbeat, Li had believed it. Expected it, even. There was a kind of fluid grace in the way he rose to his feet, but unlike the kind of courtly nobles she tended to associate that sort of thing with, there were no extraneous movements.
She didn't know if anyone else noticed it, though. In some ways, it was made all the more obvious to her, who only saw through the earth's vibrations. It made certain things easier to pick up on.
Like Li's quiet footsteps, or the way he always held himself like he was ready for a fight.
Oh, there was no way she was going to miss this.
Rising to her feet, she moved to trail after Li, only to find a hand thrust in her face. She arched a brow, tempted to just walk straight into it to show how ineffective that would have been had she truly been as unseeing as everyone around here thought she was, but she chose not to. It wasn't like he'd learn, anyways. She just deepened her frown instead, straightened her back, and forced herself to look up into the general vicinity of Yang's face.
(She didn't see the point of looking at people's faces when they talked. It wasn't like she could make exact eye contact anyways. Her earth sense was good, but it wasn't that good.)
"Your father has instructed me to stay here with you, Miss Beifong." Yang said. "Huan will guide the boy to the inner courtyard."
Toph's frown deepened. She didn't even need to ask the reason why- her father probably thought that something as violent as a swordfight wasn't fit for her delicate sensibilities. Which was ridiculous, because her father was under the impression that she couldn't see at all. What was there to protect her from? Scary noises?
Metal clanging against metal. Yeah. Real terrifying.
"Sorry," she heard Li apologize, before Huan lead him down the hall. It actually sounded sincere, she thought.
Huh. She knew there was a reason she liked the guy.
The summons had been sudden, but there wasn't a single man in Gaoling who would be foolish enough to ignore summons from Lao Beifong. He was the most well known figure in the city- and it certainly didn't hurt that he was also the richest. While he'd needed to readjust his schedule considerably to fit the nobleman in, he didn't doubt that he would be well compensated for his troubles.
That said, he did have to wonder what it was that he needed a swordsmaster for.
The best swordsmaster in the city, nonetheless. He couldn't help but preen at the way Lao's missive had addressed him. He certainly was that. Whatever request Lao Beifong wanted him to fulfill, he was certain he could do that and more.
He didn't have to wait long for the nobleman to appear. He greeted him in the inner courtyard of his manor, pausing to whisper something to one of his guards before he turned to address him. The guard hurried off elsewhere in the estate, but he paid him little mind. Perhaps he'd simply gone to fetch something.
"Master Han. It is good to see that you could come on such short notice."
"It is no trouble at all, my lord." He bowed, giving the nobleman all the courtesy he deserved. "I am always ready to be of service to the Beifong family."
"I am glad to hear that." Lao said. "We have need of your expertise."
"Of course." Han said, straightening slightly. "What is it that you wish of me?"
"We have... acquired a new guard, of a sorts." Lao said, a slight frown tugging on his lips. "I am certain you know the plight of our dear daughter."
He did. Few knew of the Beifongs' only child, but he had met her on the handful of rare occasions that she was allowed to greet guests, when her parents deigned themselves rub elbows with those in Gaoling they thought important. She was blind, a fragile little thing that was hardly equipped to navigate the dangers of the world, which was why her parents kept her here, in the manor, where she could be safe.
It was, in his view, a wise decision.
"We keep her here to keep her safe, but recently she has begun to grow... lonely." Lao said, his frown deepening. "After much contemplation, we came upon the idea of hiring a young man to guard her personally, someone a bit closer to her own age that she could talk to. Our guards are more than competent, of course, but they are all..."
The nobleman trailed off, and Han took it as a sign that it was safe to speak. "You need not say more. I have daughter just a few years older than your Toph."
Old men were hardly what one would consider companionable to a young girl. His daughter barely even wanted to talk to him most days, he couldn't imagine her wishing to converse with another man of his age.
"While the idea has merit, our current hire is... troublesome." Lao admitted. "I would like to test how well he knows his blades, before I fully commit to him."
There was much more to the story than he was presented, but he decided it wise not to ask. Instead, Han merely bowed his head a second time. "Of course. I would be more than happy to test this young man of yours."
"Excellent." Lao said. "I just sent a guard to fetch him. It should not be long now."
He didn't have to wait very long at all, as it turned out. The young man in question- little more than a boy, really- was... not quite what he expected, even with Lao's mention of him being troublesome. He wasn't certain what it was that attracted his attention first- the threadbare outer robes he wore, hardly befitting of his current environment, or the horrible burn scar that alighted most of the left half of his face.
(How well did he even see out of that eye? It seemed little more than a slit, set as if in a permanent glare.)
He glanced back towards Lao, almost expecting this to be some kind of nobleman's joke, but the man's face was completely serious. This was the new hire in question.
Lao caught his gaze, and merely shook his head, looking at a bit of a loss himself. "My daughter seems to like him. My wife is... sympathetic."
Ah. Han turned back towards the scrap of a boy, only to find that he was being watched. The boy didn't flinch or look away- if anything, his gaze only seemed to intensify, as if he were sizing him up. Unconsciously, he felt himself stand a little straighter, wondering exactly where the lady of the manor had dug this boy out of. He could only assume that she was the one who had brought him back to the manor- he couldn't imagine a businessman as shrewd and clever as Lao picking him up.
His eyes, Han realized, were an uncomfortable shade of gold.
"Li," Lao began, "-this is Master Han. I brought him here to test your abilities with the sword."
The boy- Li- spared Lao only the faintest glance, before performing a court perfect bow. He wasn't sure what the action was more in contrast with- his weathered clothing or his unruly mop of short hair.
"I thank you for this opportunity." He said, his voice surprisingly rough for a boy his age. "I only hope that I can live up to whatever expectations you might have for me."
Han cleared his throat, not returning the bow back. So the boy knew some manners. That didn't mean he had to treat him as if he had any actual station. He was clearly a refugee, no matter how one looked at him- perhaps one from the colonies, if those eyes were any indication.
(There were rumors that Fire Nation soldiers would sometimes... but no, he would not think about that. Better to think that the child was wanted, at least at some point.)
"Very good." Han said, taking a step back, his gaze darting towards the sheath hung over the boy's back. "Let us begin by seeing your sword of choice."
Li lifted his head, blinking slightly at his statement. Then without another word, he nodded, stepping down into the inner courtyard proper. He reached for the sword strapped to his back- and it was only then that Han realized that it wasn't merely one sword, but a pair- dual dao, no less.
That was... very unusual, especially for a refugee.
Even more unusual was the quality of the blades in question. They were finely crafted, not something one would typically find in the hands of a commoner, much less a refugee. He'd either stolen them- or had once been of noble blood himself. With a slight frown, Han forced himself to look past the horrible burn that marred the left half of the boy's face to focus on the right. Upon closer examination, he certainly did seem to have features that one might consider noble.
He very quickly decided that it was in his best interest not to pry.
"The dual dao," Han observed, doing his best to cover up his lapse of silence, "-not a common sight. Have you had any training with them?"
"Some." Li replied. "I had a master to teach me, before..."
He trailed off, and didn't finish. Han thought it better not to ask, but for entirely different reasons than before. There was a good reason he stayed far away from the savagery of war. Some would call him a coward. But his daughter had no mother, and a swordsman was of little use against firebenders. The would-be child swordsman's face was proof enough of that.
"I see." Han said simply, drawing his own sword. "In that case, allow me to test your previous master's training."
Li said nothing in reply, just readied his stance. Lao wisely stepped well out of the way, leaving the inner courtyard to the pair of them.
It was not a long match by any means, but nevertheless, an enlightening one. Han was able to draw a few conclusions- namely that with practice, Li would likely be able to make up for any deficiencies he had with his left hand side- and there clearly were more than few. But also that whoever had trained the boy, they were clearly a far superior swordsman than he.
And lastly, that the boy was intense.
Even with their short battle over, he still watched him with a wary eye. He wasn't out of breath, nevermind winded- something told Han that he could have kept going for however long he needed to in order to win the match, even though it had never been about such things. He briefly wondered if the boy even knew the meaning of the phrase give up, before quickly concluding that he likely didn't.
Someone had got past his guard once, had branded him. He clearly wasn't going to allow that to happen again.
"Well," Han said, sheathing his sword and turning slightly to face Lao, "-in my expert opinion, I believe he will shape up to be a fine swordsman."
Lao's expression was perfectly neutral, but he could have sworn it felt as if he were frowning. Briefly, he wondered if he'd given him the wrong answer- but though he was certainly interested in making a profit here, it wasn't to the extent that he would do his job incorrectly. The nobleman had asked for an honest evaluation of the skills of his new hire- and that was exactly what he had given him.
If anything, he should be thrilled to have found such a remarkable diamond in the rough. In a few years time, Toph Beifong would be the safest noble in the city. A father couldn't ask for more.
"Thank you, Master Han, for your time." Lao said, turning sharply on his heel. "If you will come with me, we can discuss the matter of your payment."
Han bowed in response, moving to follow- but not before he spared a glance back towards Li. The boy had since returned his swords to their sheath, but his eyes had never left him.
He looked, Han thought, relieved.
Watching the match, Huan quickly decided that if this was what the kid could do with a full stomach and a good night's rest, then the lack of both those things had to be the only reason they'd been able to catch him in the first place. He might not be a swordsman, but he didn't need to be to realize that no ordinary thirteen year old boy should be able to hold his own against a master swordsman.
Which was exactly what Li had done.
He was impressed. More than impressed, actually. He'd had his doubts- the kid didn't exactly look like much- but clearly, he'd been proven wrong.
Now, if only he could work on his social skills. Because he'd had to listen to his conversation with the young lady of the manor, and he had to admit- it had been painful. The awkward silences had been bad enough, but his attempts at conversation had proven... interesting, to say the least.
Ah well. Nobody could be a master of everything. Maybe he just needed a few pointers.
Lao Beifong watched the master swordsman depart with a poorly hidden expression of displeasure.
He was not necessarily against his daughter's idea of having a companion close to her own age- one that could protect her, no less. It seemed a fine solution, in fact. He just wasn't sure why she had gotten so attached to the half-starved refugee that had tried stealing from them. Surely there had to be other, better candidates out there, he reasoned. It didn't need to be this one. If his wife hadn't been so for it, clearly taking pity on the disfigured child, he never would have agreed to this.
Still, he was nothing if not a man of his word. He'd agreed to this, and he knew Toph would never forgive him if he tried to chase the boy away. He would just have to wait for her to get tired of him on her own, and then he could pick someone better. Someone more suitable for not just his daughter, but their family as a whole.
Perhaps Master Yu knew of a few skilled young earthbenders from more... reputable families. One such boy would do nicely, he thought, and there certainly would be benefits to such an arrangement beyond merely keeping his daughter safe and happy. It was never too early to look for marriage prospects, in his opinion.
When he returned to the inner courtyard, he was surprised to find that the boy- Li- was still there. He looked up as he entered, and Lao forced himself not to flinch at the sight of the boy's face. The boy's burn was difficult to look at, made all the more worse by just how much of his face it took up. It left his features asymmetrical, his left eye reduced to a tiny slit that he hadn't even been certain he could see out of until his match with Master Han had proven otherwise.
Even then, he still wasn't fully convinced.
Yet another reason he needed to find someone better to guard his daughter. How was a half-blind boy supposed to guard a blind girl? He needed someone he could feel safe leaving Toph with, not someone she could relate to.
(He certainly wouldn't want him to give her any ideas.)
Still, he was not a heartless man. It was all too clear the boy had no place to go. Even if he didn't prove to be a good fit here, he would be sure to at least find him somewhere else he could work- an apprenticeship, perhaps, one that came with room and board. Thirteen was still a child, and even a commoner's child shouldn't be allowed to fend for themselves at such a tender age.
Sadly, with the war, such things were becoming far too common.
"You are still here?" Lao asked.
"You didn't tell me to leave." Li said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"I suppose I did not." Lao admitted, before letting his gaze flick downwards, to the tattered outer robe the boy wore. The rest of his clothes didn't appear to be in much better condition, the sleeves of his shirt frayed and his boots badly scuffed. He looked every inch the refugee he said he was.
He would need, he decided, some new clothes if he were to stay here- at least for the time being. He would speak to Poppy about it- he was certain she could arrange something with one of her seamstress friends. Surely one of them could make something more suitable than the near rags he currently had. They didn't even seem to fit him well, hanging too loosely in places and too tight in others. He already suspected that the boy's swords were likely stolen, but perhaps his clothes had been as well.
If nothing else, he supposed the boy had managed to clean up fairly well. His hair was still a disordered, scraggly mess, but perhaps it would even out with time- assuming he hadn't worn out his welcome by then. Still, even if he did end up staying longer than he would have liked, at least he wouldn't have to worry about him looking too disreputable.
Save for his burn, he supposed, but there was hardly anything to be done about that. At the very least, Toph would never have to see it. It was too savage a sight for someone so fragile as his daughter. He could barely stomach it himself.
"Huan will take you back to my daughter." Lao said, gesturing towards the guard. "I trust you can keep her entertained until this afternoon, and then keep an eye on her while her tutors give her lessons. We can create a more formal routine in the coming days."
Li simply bowed in response, before wordlessly following Huan away. He didn't seem to be much of one for words.
He watched until the refugee was out of sight, before turning on his heel and heading towards the tea room, where he knew he would find his wife at this hour. He wanted to ask about that seamstress right away. Perhaps once the boy was properly dressed, he would become more amenable to his continued presence here.
When Li and Huan returned, Toph was seated properly this time.
Huan might overlook unladylike behavior- to him she was a child first, and a lady second- but Yang chided her for it almost worse than her mother did. It took all of her self control to not just sink him into the earth and be done with it sometimes.
One day, though. One day she would be an adult, free of her parents, and then? Then she would get her sweet, sweet revenge.
"So," Toph began once she sensed Li crossing the threshold, skipping any preamble, "-how did it go with the swords?"
"Okay," Li replied, then with more hesitation, added, "-I guess?"
"You guess?" Huan almost seemed to snort. "Looked to me like you really impressed Master Han. Not bad, kid."
In spite of being forced to sit properly, Toph had kept one hand touching the floor. The impressions it gave her weren't as good as what she could get with both her feet, but it worked well enough for her to 'see' Huan clapping Li on the back, though his flinch in response was harder to make out. She might have just dismissed it as stumbling, if it weren't for the fact that his feet didn't move an inch.
Neither Huan or Yang noticed. Li didn't say anything.
(The seeing could be so blind, sometimes.)
"Thanks." Li said quickly- too quickly, as he hastily moved to put some distance between himself and Huan. Like he didn't want him to touch him again.
Maybe he didn't like being touched. He hadn't flinched when she'd grabbed his wrist yesterday, but maybe he'd been too stunned to react. She'd try to remember that.
"So," Toph began, sensing his need for an out, "-will you tell me about it?"
Li seemed to hesitate for just a moment, before he sat down across from her. He still kept a distance away, but he was slightly closer than the last time. "What do you want to know?"
Toph just grinned. It wasn't ladylike or proper. "Give me the play by play."
She didn't need to be able to see to picture Yang's sputter.
In his opinion, the Li kid was shifty.
It was those eyes he didn't trust, more than anything. He'd never seen gold eyes before, not on any good Earth Kingdom folk, at least. If he wasn't spirit-touched, then that could only mean one thing.
The kid was Fire Nation.
The kid was Fire Nation, and Yang didn't trust him in the least. For all he knew, this was part of some grand plan on the part of their army. Sure, the kid was young, but he wouldn't put it past them to train child soldiers. Huan might be impressed with his skills with the sword, but he knew better. No thirteen year old kid had any right to be skilled enough with dual dao of all things to impress a man with the kind of reputation Master Han had around these parts.
No normal thirteen year old boy.
He wasn't sure what kind of trick he'd pulled on the little lady, but whatever it was, it wasn't going to fool him. He'd be keeping a close eye on him- one slip, and he'd show the kid that it took more than some fancy swordplay to be a real fighter. He'd caught his ass before, and he'd catch it again, no problem.
"Don't glare at him like that, Yang." Huan said in a hushed whisper. "You'll scare him off."
Yang just huffed. "Good."
That was the idea. He didn't know what gods those Fire Nation scum worshiped, but whatever gods they were, he'd put the fear of them into this kid.
The kid, however, merely lifted his head, pausing mid-conversation to look at him. Probably heard him. He turned his head so that he was facing him head on, and glared right back.
It was the scar. That was the only reason he looked away first. That damn scar. That was probably some kind of trick too, he concluded. Put there to invoke pity. Had done a damn number on the mistress of the manor.
The kid looked away, and he swore that he had the audacity to look smug. Like he'd won something. He grit his teeth, not wanting to say anything out of line in front of the little lady.
Damn kid. He bet his name wasn't even Li.
Poppy Beifong paused to smile at the young man- little more than a boy, really- waiting just outside the manor's lesson hall. He caught her gaze, and it took everything she had to not look away. It must have shown in her eyes, because not a second later, it was Li who tore his gaze away, attempting to appear as if it was merely disinterest that had him staring at the floor, and not the realization that she found his face difficult to look at.
It wasn't his fault, not really. She simply wasn't used to seeing such awful scars. And on such a young child too! It was such a shame- the unmarred half of the boy's face had such fine features, that he might have even been handsome when he came of age.
Now? Now she was certain there was a reason the Spirits had decided to put this child in their path. In her daughter's sightless eyes, no one could be ugly.
(And he wasn't ugly! Just... unpleasant to look at, from a certain angle.)
"Are you here to see," he began, before stopping, the words seemingly fleeing his mouth before he found them again, "-your daughter?"
She realized, in that instant, that he wasn't certain as to how he should refer to Toph. It was a fair question. They'd hired him to keep her company as much as they had to guard her. It would be a bit odd for him to refer to her in a completely formal manner, but at the same time, it would hardly do to have a commoner so casually refer to a member of the nobility by name. Clearly, they would have to work something out.
But that was a topic for another day. Let him get used to being here first, and then they could work on the other matters.
"Yes," Poppy agreed, "-I take it you two have been getting along well."
"Fine." Li said.
She expected him to elaborate, but he instead remained silent. Poppy tried not to frown, recalling the way he'd been all but silent unless spoken to when her husband had questioned him the previous day. Perhaps he simply wasn't accustomed to dealing with people of their station. It was understandable. Newly hired servants were often the same way. She supposed in Li's case, an orphaned refugee who had been forced to steal in order to survive, that would only be more pronounced.
He'd probably expected to be thrown in jail- if not worse.
She scoffed at the idea. They weren't savage brutes, like those in the Fire Nation were. They knew the difference between a desperate, starving child and a hardened criminal. They weren't the sort of people who would brand the face of a child, for where could a burn like that could have come from, if not from a firebender? Though she didn't like to think of the war, she was hardly ignorant of it.
She couldn't think of a single thing a child could have done to possibly deserve a scar like that.
"I have called for a seamstress." Poppy said, pushing such awful thoughts out of her mind. She truly didn't like thinking about the war, after all. "She will be here first thing tomorrow morning, so that she can measure you for new clothing."
Li stiffened, surprised enough by her statement to chance looking up again. She didn't recoil this time either. "You don't have to-"
"Think nothing of it." Poppy said, giving the boy a soft smile. "It is the least we can do."
She knew her husband had asked her to call the seamstress because she thought the state of Li's clothing was distasteful, and though she agreed, she was hardly about to say that to the boy's face. Those clothes were likely all he had. She was not about to mock him for it. The war had taken so much from many, and if they had the resources to give back, she did not see any reason why they should not do so.
Li swallowed, looking as if he was about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead he gave her a curt bow and left it at that.
She didn't press. He likely wasn't used to such kindness, the poor thing. She was certain he would get used to everything given time. She merely gave him the faintest incline of her head in acknowledgment, before entering the lesson hall to check on Toph's progress. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Li once more take up position just outside the door. Dutifully, one might say.
Yes, she thought to herself, -this new arrangement was going to work out splendidly.
For a sheltered girl whose parents had no real intention of letting her out into the world, she sure had to put up with an almost inane amount of lessons. She guessed they were just prepping her for when they inevitably married her off- which, gross- but that didn't make it any less annoying. She didn't even see when she was going to use this stuff, seeing as she had no interest at all in being married off to the highest bidder.
But then, her parents didn't know that.
So until then, she guessed she just sort of had to put up with the endless etiquette lessons. At least they weren't as bad as her earthbending lessons with that half-baked excuse for a master her parents had hired. As if she even needed him. She could beat his pansy butt up in her sleep, with her hands tied behind her back.
Hell, she was willing to bet even Scruffy could probably beat him, if he was half as good with those swords as he made it sound like he was. And as far as she had been able to tell, he hadn't been lying.
He was, however, a lousy storyteller.
He was also still waiting for her when she finally hauled herself to her feet, well after both her tutor and her mother had left. It was just him for the moment- she didn't doubt Yang would eventually manifest again, not yet willing to trust their new addition, but for the moment, it was just the two of them.
Carefully, she moved as quietly as possible towards the door. She knew Li would be waiting for her to come out- but that didn't mean she couldn't still take him by surprise. Her feet being bare meant her steps were practically noiseless, especially once she picked up her skirts, preventing them from trailing after her. She remembered how Li had been able to pick up on her presence outside the door to his room, and she couldn't help but indulge in her curiosity as to exactly how good his senses actually were.
She grinned to herself. Already, just having Li around was vastly improving her overall mood. It was a good thing too, since she was pretty sure she wouldn't be able to sneak out tonight- or even tomorrow, if she knew her father. The less steam she had to blow off, the better.
She didn't even make it halfway to the door before Li shifted. "No more lessons?"
Toph fought the urge to huff. She was used to getting the drop on people, not the other way around. Dropping her skirts, she just gave him a wide grin.
"Yep." Toph said. "No more listening to some old crone drone on about obscure court customs for the day."
She could have sworn Li laughed. It was a faint, tiny sound, and Toph instantly decided that she loved it, but that it could also definitely stand to be louder.
Unfortunately, she didn't have long to dwell on it. Yang must have noticed that her tutor had left, because he'd decided to grace her with his presence again. She privately huffed, wondering how long she'd have to wait to actually have the chance to be truly left alone with Li. Knowing her father, it would be way longer than she might like.
Knowing him, he probably also thought she'd get sick of Li in a few weeks. Which just went to show how well he actually knew her- because if he honestly thought she was going to get sick of someone this interesting, then he seriously had another thing coming.
Oh no, she thought. Li was going to stick around for awhile. She'd make sure of it.
Chapter 2: fire
"Huan," Toph began, "-do you think you could find Li a map of the area? I'm sure he'll want to leave on his days off, and I wouldn't want him getting lost."
Wrapped up this chapter, and just in time! I leave tomorrow to visit family, though not for very long- just for three days. The chapter itself went in a different direction than I originally had planned? But I think I like the results better, in the end. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Next time I update, we'll be checking in to see how things are going in the Fire Nation, so look forward to that!
Somehow, it takes him until breakfast of the second day for him to realize he's technically a servant now. It'd be depressing, if it weren't somehow hilarious.
The prince of the Fire Nation, serving an Earth Kingdom family. His father would hate it. Azula would think it was hilarious, and probably fitting. He'd never been that great at being a prince anyways- especially not a Crown Prince.
Sometimes he wasn't sure if he even wanted to be one anymore. Not when what his father would demand of him would be monstrous. The idea of sacrificing their own soldiers was bad enough, but...
Startled by the sound of his recently adopted alias, Zuko jerked his head up just in time to equally startle the servant girl hovering over him. Flinching, he ducked his head back down, staring at his now empty bowl.
"Sorry," he said, "-I didn't mean to startle you."
To his surprise, the servant girl only laughed. "I think that should be my line. Are you okay? I called you like, four times."
Zuko flinched again, grateful he was looking down this time. He was going to have to get used to people calling him Li, he thought with a stab of guilt. He didn't like having to lie about who he was, but if he was going to survive in the Earth Kingdom, he couldn't exactly go by his own name. It was too obviously Fire Nation, too obviously the name of the banished crown prince- even if he doubted a mere servant would have heard of him.
He grimaced a bit at the thought. He wasn't exactly in a position to call anyone a mere servant anymore, not when that was exactly what he was now.
He was right. Azula would laugh at him.
"Guess I just spaced out." Zuko apologized, gaze finally darting back up. "So uh, what did you want?"
"I came to ask if you were finished. I'm on dishwashing duty this morning." The servant girl replied. He tried to rack his brain for her name, but came up empty. He knew he'd been introduced to a number of the other servants living here just yesterday, but he'd never been all that great at remembering names to begin with. It was something that had gotten him in trouble with his father- though in hindsight, it seemed like everything he did had gotten him in trouble with his father somehow.
Maybe all this time, he was just looking for an excuse.
"Oh, uh, yeah." Zuko said. "Um, thanks."
The girl just smiled awkwardly at him, holding out her hands. Dimly, he realized she was here for the bowl, and hastily gave it to her. The servants at the Beifong manor all shared one communal kitchen, where they also shared meals. He still didn't feel comfortable about eating with them, so he'd made himself scarce as soon as he had gotten his food.
They also seemed to share internal chores around the servant's quarters, but from the sound of it, he wouldn't be put on the rotation for any of those until next week- provided he was still here by then. He tried not to grimace at the thought- it wasn't that he was opposed to carrying his own weight, it was more just... he'd never had to before. Sure, he'd taken care of himself for those four months in the wild, but that didn't exactly teach him much about doing dishes. Or laundry.
Or Agni forbid, cooking.
The girl took it. "I hope it was to your taste."
"It was." He lied. It hadn't exactly been flavorless, but its flavor came from earthen tasting herbs, rather than the spice he was used to- and was already starting to miss. But it had been food, and if there was anything the past four months had taught him, it was that he should never take a meal for granted.
The girl just smiled faintly at him, before she turned to leave. He tilted his head, realizing as he watched her walk that she had a slight limp, her right foot dragging slightly behind. His gaze flicked downwards towards it, but with her servant's robes on, he couldn't tell if it was from a burn or not.
But it didn't have to be. It wasn't just burns the his country's soldiers used to inflict pain on children. The servant girl didn't even look much older than he did, maybe eighteen or so. Just barely of age.
"Wait," he said, catching the girl's attention, "-um, what was your name again?"
The girl glanced back at him, a slight incline to her brows. "Xia-Su."
"Xia-Su." He repeated, attempting to commit it to memory this time, along with her face- deep brown eyes and even darker brown hair, her skin several shades lighter than either, but still dark. "I'm- uh, I'm Li."
"I know." Xia-Su said, only the faintest twitch of her lips indicating amusement.
"Oh. Right." Zuko blinked. "You called me four times."
"Mm-hm." Xia-Su merely nodded, before turning back, limping her way back towards the kitchen.
He felt a stab of guilt at making her walk this far out of her way, then swallowed it back. She wouldn't have this job if she couldn't handle it. He knew how much he loathed the pity he got when people looked at his scar, so the last thing he wanted to do was pity others right back.
Sympathy, maybe. Just not pity.
He wondered if his father was capable of either of those things. Lightly touching his scar, he decided he probably wasn't.
Dropping his hand from his face, Zuko rose to his feet. He didn't need to look up at the position of the sun to know that he had at least an hour and a half before he had to begin his actual job of shadowing Toph, but he did anyways. He was told that people who weren't firebenders couldn't look at it for long without it burning their eyes, but that had never been a problem for him.
Drawing in a deep breath, he turned on his heel. Yesterday's match had proven to him just how rusty his skills had gotten, and how badly effected they were by the loss of not only most of the vision in his left eye, but also his depth perception. Master Piandao would have scolded him for growing so lax.
If he was actually going to step up and fill the role of a guard, he needed to be better. Much better.
And that meant finding somewhere to practice.
Poppy Beifong kept her promise of getting a seamstress.
It wasn't anything Zuko wasn't used to. There had been plenty of seamstress back at the royal palace, and whole groups of servants dedicated solely to dressing the royal family. Doing it now shouldn't be a problem.
And yet after just four months spent in the wilderness, he'd managed to forget how to do it.
He tried to convince himself that it was because this wasn't the palace. He wasn't a prince here, and these weren't his people. That was the reason why he was feeling so self-conscious as the seamstress looked him over, casting a critical eye on him that alluded to years of experience. She barely even so much as glanced at the ruined half of his face, but that provided him with little comfort.
Especially once the seamstress frowned, and said, "-remove your outer robe."
Zuko flinched. "Why do I need to-?"
"It obviously doesn't fit you right." The seamstress said. "I won't be able to get accurate measurements otherwise. Take it off."
Zuko opened his mouth to argue, before snapping it shut. He knew she had a point- it was stolen, after all. Of course it didn't fit him right. Taking in a deep breath, he carefully removed the outer robe, which was, for once, at least clean. He never wanted to go without access to laundry again.
If he thought that would satisfy her, he was wrong. "The shirt too."
The seamstress just leveled a glare at him. Zuko grumbled, removing the ill-fitting undershirt. At least he got to keep his pants.
The woman crinkled her nose, her eyes narrowing sharply. "You're far too skinny."
He had to bite his tongue to keep himself from making a sharp remark. Of course he was- he'd spent the past four months existing on what basically boiled down to a starvation diet. It was inevitable that he was going to have lost some weight.
To make matters worse, they weren't alone- for whatever reason, Toph's mother had decided she should be here too. He could feel without looking where she was staring- right where his ribs were just starting to show.
And maybe that was it. Maybe that was why he was feeling so self-conscious right now. Because the part of him that still clung to some form of noble pride was humiliated to show just how badly his exile had already started to effect him. His scar was one thing- he couldn't exactly hide that. But he didn't see why other people had to know just how much he'd started to look the part of a starving refugee.
At least it would help sell the story, some small part of him thought.
"Well," the seamstress said, "-I suppose I can work with it."
It felt stupid to compare the next few minutes to torture, given that he'd experienced actual torture and had the scar to show for it. But although the seamstress' touch was as impersonal as could be, he couldn't help but shudder every time she got too close. It made him long for his swords, which he'd set down on the other side of the room, far out of his reach. Logically, he knew she wasn't a threat and was just trying to do her job, but emotionally...
It had almost been like a caress, until it wasn't. Then it was just pain.
He sucked in his breath, determined to just get through it. Nobody would have to touch him again once she was done. He could get through this, and he would. Whatever his father might think of him, he wasn't weak.
As soon as the seamstress was done, he scrambled to get his clothes back on. He felt safer, less self-conscious once they were, but even then he couldn't bring himself to look anyone in the eyes. It would be fine, he reasoned. Lost weight was something he could at least get back, especially now that he had access to three square meals a day.
He just wasn't so sure about everything else.
(But then... Toph had touched him too, and he hadn't recoiled from that. Maybe there was still hope for him yet. At least he wasn't afraid of children yet.)
"Is that all?" Zuko asked.
"That is all." The seamstress said, her tone as impersonal as ever. "I should have something finished by the end of the week."
If she had noticed the way he'd flinched, she'd apparently decided not to say anything. It was better than Poppy's blatant look of pity. He could feel it even without looking.
"You can go now, Li." Poppy said. "I am certain Toph is eager to see you."
Zuko said nothing, opting instead to give the pair a curt bow, before he grabbed his swords and left as quickly as he could without looking desperate.
He couldn't be out of there fast enough.
"You okay?" Toph asked later, when he'd made his way back to where she was waiting.
"Yeah," Zuko lied, "-I'm fine."
Toph didn't look convinced, but she also didn't push. He couldn't help but feel grateful. He swore he could still feel the seamstress' cool touch on him.
The new clothes had better be worth it.
He woke that night, drenched in sweat from a nightmare. He couldn't remember what it was about, but he could still feel his father's burning hand on his face, still hear the sound of his own screams.
Azula had smiled.
He couldn't get back to sleep after that. Instead he found himself a quiet patch of earth, far from where he could disturb anyone, and went through his sword forms again.
He'd stopped sleeping well after his mother had left anyways.
Toph Beifong continued to not be what he'd expected.
But then, he'd never quite known what to expect from her, even from the first time they'd met. She looked more like a delicate and fragile doll than she did a human child, blind and helpless. But that same blind and helpless girl had not only sought him out without any help, but had also found him- and beyond that, she'd never shown any hesitation, not even the slightest fear of taking the wrong step. While a lot of that could be explained away by familiarity, he wasn't stupid enough to think that was all could be.
He was having enough trouble adjusting to his own hampered vision. If he closed his right eye, and tried to see just out of his left, it usually wasn't long before he hit a wall- literally, in most cases. Moving with limited sight wasn't easy, but moving without any sight at all? That had to be even more difficult.
But Toph never seemed to have that problem.
And that was... actually pretty intriguing.
When they'd first met, he'd felt sympathy for the girl, understanding what it was like to grow up in an environment where your social options were limited. Unlike Azula, who'd been allowed to go to school, he'd been tutored in the royal palace. The only times he'd been allowed to play with children his own age were when Mai and Ty Lee were over, and again- those were Azula's friends, not his. So her desire to have someone to talk to... he could understand that.
More than understand that. It was part of why he'd chosen to stay.
Now he was finding a new reason- curiosity. Toph Beifong was more than what she appeared to be, of that he was certain.
(They had that in common too.)
That first night he'd been propelled from sleep by a nightmare, he hadn't noticed anything amiss, nor the one after that. But the third night?
He thought she was a ghost at first.
Pale and slight, her tiny figure cut through the manor gardens. He froze in place, unable to do anything more than watch. Closing his left eye to see better, he watched as the tiny figure pressed her hand against the earthen wall, which seemed to fall away at her gesture. It was only once it closed up behind her that he felt he could move again.
Exhaling, he pinched himself, just to check. It hurt.
He was awake, then.
Sheathing his swords, Zuko glanced behind him. He'd picked this spot to practice because there weren't any guards typically stationed nearby, no one he could disturb. It was probably that very same reason Toph had left in this direction, even though her room was on the other side of the grounds.
And make no mistake- that had definitely been Toph.
Zuko carefully navigated the darkened grounds until he made it to the spot Toph had vanished from. Peering behind him, he moved back a few steps, calculating the distance between himself and the top of the wall as best he could. He made the jump cleanly, in spite of his piss poor depth perception. Crouching low on top of the earthen wall, he scanned the darkness beyond it.
Where had she gone?
Why she had gone was slightly less of a question. He was only half blind, after all. He hadn't exactly missed the way her posture would shift whenever other people- especially her parents- were around, as if flipping a switch. It wasn't like with Azula, who would pretend to be innocent to get what she wanted- it was more like she was almost trying to protect something.
The real her, maybe. Maybe that was why she was so desperate for someone to talk to. Maybe it was because no one around her actually knew the first thing about her.
Narrowing his eyes, Zuko frowned. He doubted he'd be able to find Toph in the dark, not when she was doubtlessly infinitely more familiar with Gaoling than he was. Besides, something told him that this wasn't exactly her first time sneaking out after dark. If he waited, she would probably come back on her own.
Standing up, Zuko glanced back at the grounds of the Beifong manor, before he leapt down from the wall. He put some distance between himself and the spot where Toph had slipped out, climbing one of the few trees that dotted the estate's gardens. It wasn't like he had anything better to do except sleep, and that had proven to be a fruitless effort. Maybe he could even use the time to meditate.
Up a tree. With no sunlight. He wondered if Uncle had a proverb for this.
Probably. Uncle had a proverb for everything.
Toph didn't make it back until the early hours of the morning.
It was still dark out- the sun wouldn't rise for another couple of hours. She returned the same way she'd left- bending the earthen wall to create a hole, which she then passed through. She closed it as soon as she did, rendering her trespass invisible.
(Was it really trespassing if it was her house? Probably not, but his choice of words still stood.)
He thought briefly about confronting her, then and there, but quickly decided against it. Closing his left eye, he peered at her retreating figure in the dark. She didn't look any worse for wear, at least, not from this distance. A little dusty, maybe, but that wasn't exactly a problem for an earthbender. He watched her expertly weave her way through the grounds, avoiding the guards with practiced ease. She didn't seem to notice him, so he opted to stay where he was, waiting until she was out of sight before he came down out of the tree.
Guess he wasn't the only one around here keeping secrets.
"Didn't get enough sleep?"
Toph paused mid-yawn, before shrugging. "Eh, I've slept better."
Zuko's lips twitched slightly in the faintest of smiles. He guessed she wasn't quite as good at going without sleep as he was. Which, honestly? Was probably a good thing. It wasn't like he'd tried to cultivate that particular talent, at least, not on purpose. It was, quite frankly, a miracle in and of itself that he'd managed to sleep through the night twice in a row when he'd first arrived here. Testament to how badly he'd missed having something akin to an actual bed, he guessed.
"Are you sure you'll be okay?" Zuko asked. "I thought you had earthbending lessons today."
He was starting to get a handle on Toph's schedule- his schedule now, now that it was his job to shadow her. It was honestly pretty boring work, which involved a lot of standing around and doing nothing, which was still preferable to being glared at by that one hulking brute of a guard. Yang, he thought his name was- the same jerk who had gripped his arms hard enough to bruise when he'd brought him before Lao Beifong.
He wasn't sure what his problem was. Did he realize he was Fire Nation? Did he just not like the idea of letting a thief and a refugee within arm's reach of the young lady of the house? Or was he just a weirdo who liked glaring at children?
He had no idea, but just in case it was the former, he fully intended to keep his mouth shut. He didn't want to cause any trouble.
Well. Any further trouble.
"Trust me," Toph laughed, as if he'd said something funny, "-that won't be a problem."
Zuko just arched his remaining brow, tilting his head slightly. He hadn't met Toph's earthbending teacher yet- he only gave her lessons once a week. It was a huge difference from how things had worked in the palace, where he began every morning with several hours worth of firebending practice, which often bled into the afternoon thanks to his lack of skill. His tutors often wouldn't let him leave until he'd managed to perfect a set- or until someone came along and intervened, usually mother or Uncle, occasionally even Lu Ten, before he'd passed.
Of course, that was all a thing of the past. Now he couldn't so much as create even a single flame.
Weak. Useless. Just like his father always said he was.
"What's he like?" Zuko asked. "Your earthbending teacher, I mean."
It had gotten slightly easier to talk to Toph, if only just. To his surprise, she didn't seem to be growing tired of him just yet, though he wasn't certain how long that would last. He'd likely wear out his welcome at some point.
In response, Toph just crinkled her nose. "Obnoxious. You're going to hate him."
Zuko blinked, having not quite expected such a definitive- and negative- answer. He thought about his own firebending tutors, and how much he had loathed them. Still, he wouldn't exactly call them obnoxious- just strict, and maybe a little too eager to use corporal punishment whenever he screwed up badly enough. Granted, he couldn't imagine either of Toph's parents allowing something like that to happen to her- if anything, they seemed kind of overprotective of their daughter, since from the sound of it, they wouldn't let her leave the grounds of the manor without them, even with a guard.
As far as he could tell, Toph could more than handle herself, blind or not.
Realizing abruptly that she was still waiting for a response, Zuko pushed away his thoughts. "Guess I'll just take your word for it."
As it turned out, Toph wasn't wrong. Master Yu was pretty obnoxious.
Her earthbending lesson with him had lasted roughly around two hours, and during that time, they did little more than the most basic of breathing exercises. He kept expecting him to move on to something else, but that never happened.
Shouldn't an earthbending lesson include some actual earthbending?
He glanced over in the direction of Toph's father. Lao had come to oversee the lesson for himself, but he in no way looked dissatisfied. If anything, he looked pleased.
Zuko frowned. Maybe this was normal. Maybe it was the intensity of his own lessons that were strange.
But no. One look at Toph's face told him that wasn't the case. She looked... frustrated, and he had to wonder how it was that nobody else could see it. Clearly she, at least, thought she was ready to move on- that she could do more. And she could. He'd seen that much for himself last night. And while maybe opening up a hole in an earthen wall wasn't exactly an advanced earthbending technique, it did at least suggest that she was ready for something beyond just breathing exercises.
It wasn't like she was a firebender. Then the focus on breathing exercises might actually make sense. Fire came from the breath, after all, and poor breath control meant weak or even erratic firebending. He was sure breath control was important to the other bending arts as well, but short of airbending, he couldn't think of another bending style where an instructor might actually be able to justify a two hour session full of nothing but breathing exercises.
So maybe this wasn't normal either. Maybe this was just as bad as the lessons he'd gotten in the royal palace, just on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where his instructors had tried to push him to the point of breaking, Master Yu was instead attempting to squelch and squander any bending talent Toph might have.
And her father, from the look of it, was completely okay with this.
Narrowing his eyes, Li watched Master Yu with a scrutinizing gaze. He even sounded patronizing, now that he was listening out for it. He wondered how Toph managed to stomach it. Based on what he'd managed to glean from their conversations over the past few days, it didn't seem like she was the type of person to back down easily, just as stubborn as any earthbender.
Unless this was a fight she'd already given up.
(He hadn't fought his father either.)
Master Yu must have felt his gaze, because he cracked an eye open to look at him. Zuko leveled his gaze with his, but instead of holding his ground like any good earthbender should, he just shut his eyes again and pretended like he hadn't seen anything. He couldn't fool him though- not when the serene expression he'd once had had completely fled his face.
Zuko tried not to smirk, and failed.
"You know," he overheard the earthbending master whisper to Lao once he thought he was out of earshot, "-I have many promising young earthbenders you could hire instead."
"My daughter likes him." Lao said simply.
"Ah," Master Yu said, with a deep set frown, "-that is... unfortunate."
"I don't know what you did, Scruffy," Toph said, once they were truly out of earshot, "-but you should do it again."
Zuko just shrugged. "I just looked at him."
Toph arched a brow, the edges of her lips curling upwards. "You sure? Because I don't need to be able to see to tell he's watching you like a spooked pig-chicken."
Zuko tilted his head to the right, glancing behind him. Master Yu was still talking to Toph's father- about less interesting topics now- but he didn't miss the way he was watching him almost warily from his peripheral- from the left, the part of him that had started to pay more attention to these sorts of things noticed.
(He missed having peripheral vision in his left eye.)
Looking back at Toph, he just shrugged. "I've been told I glare."
A recent development, he thought to himself. Glaring was all the left half of his face was good for anymore.
(He'd been told he had a kind face, once. Not anymore.)
"Huh," Toph said, "-well, keep it up. Maybe you'll spook him so bad, they'll have to find me an actual teacher."
Zuko snorted in spite of himself, softly enough so that it wouldn't catch the attention of the two adults behind them. Guess he was right about Toph being frustrated with her lessons- or lack of them.
And just as right about her giving up fighting them.
Maybe they had more in common than he thought.
Toph didn't try sneaking out again that night. He'd waited in that same tree, until it became clear that she wasn't going to make a repeat appearance. He returned to the quarters he'd been given and tried to get some sleep. He snatched maybe two hours of it before he woke.
At least he'd started to recognize where he was when he woke up. Those first two nights he'd been forced awake in the middle of the night had been bad for many reasons, but the unfamiliarity hadn't helped. There was some tiny part of him that chafed at the very idea of getting familiar with the tiny, cramped quarters he'd been given, but the larger part of him- the part that had spent four months in the wilderness taking shelter wherever he could- was just glad to have a roof over his head for a change.
He huffed slightly. Some prince he was.
Hauling himself to his feet, Zuko yawned. Dawn wasn't for another hour, but he already knew he wasn't getting back to sleep. He decided to get an early start instead, grabbing the small basket of toiletries that the old woman who seemed to be in charge of the servants here had given to him the first morning he'd officially been employed. They all shared a communal bath here- separated by the sexes, of course- so he preferred to finish cleaning himself before anyone else woke up anyways.
Just another thing Azula would probably laugh at him about if she knew.
He grit his teeth. At least he'd found work. Azula would have rather died than work any job she deemed beneath her- which to her, was probably anything that wasn't being a princess. Crown princess now, he thought bitterly. He bet father was eager to make her his official heir now that he was out of the way.
In a few years, it would probably be like Prince Zuko never even existed.
He washed himself quickly, heading back to his small room before anyone else woke up. Aside from the thin mattress and a change of clothes one of the other servants had been generous enough to offer him as sleepwear, it was pretty much empty. Even if he managed to stick around longer than a few months, he didn't exactly see himself as personalizing it too much.
Familiarity was fine, but he didn't want to start thinking of this place as home. At the end of the day, banished or not, he was still Fire Nation royalty. He'd take advantage of these people's generosity enough to survive, but he didn't dare pretend that he was anything but the enemy in this land, not for one second. Even if he saw the war for what it really was, it didn't change the fact that it had been his family that had started this conflict, and his family that had perpetuated it for a hundred years.
He didn't deserve their kindness, or their pity.
He had a home. He'd lost it. This was just a place to live.
Toph didn't try sneaking out the next night, either.
The clothes Poppy's seamstress made for him arrived that morning. Xia-Su brought them, the task passed on to her down the chain of servants. He still kept his distance from them, and in turn, it kind of felt like they were keeping their distance from him. Like they didn't quite know what to make of him just yet.
Maybe they could tell he wasn't one of them.
"If I were you," Xia-Su advised him, "-I would wait until tomorrow to wear them. It's going to rain today."
Zuko turned his head to glance out the thin slit window, the only one in his tiny room. The sky was clear, but his scar stung, so he knew she was right. It was going to rain today.
"I'll keep that in mind." Zuko said, taking the clothes from her, careful to avoid any actual contact. "Thanks."
Xia-Su gave him the faintest of smiles. "You should remember to check the chore rotation tomorrow. You're being added to it."
Zuko blinked. Right. He'd forgotten about that. He wondered if he could learn how to cook overnight. Probably not.
Realizing that Xia-Su was waiting for a reply, he shifted awkwardly on his feet. "Oh, uh. Thanks for telling me. I'll be sure to look."
Xia-Su merely arched a brow. "You've never done a chore in your life, have you?"
Zuko winced. "Is it that obvious?"
"Very." Xia-Su said, her tone light, as if she hadn't just casually grasped at a part of something he was trying very hard to hide. "But don't worry. We won't hold it against you. The war has taken everything from so many people."
Zuko just swallowed, ducking his head. He couldn't help but feel a stab of guilt at those words. He wondered about Xia-Su's limp again.
"Yeah," he finally managed to get out, "-it's been pretty rough."
She just gave him a sad smile, before taking a step back. "You should try eating with us for a change, Li. Everyone's dying to get to know you better."
Zuko tried not to laugh. He had a hard time believing that.
"I'll keep that in mind." Zuko said. "Thanks for the clothes."
Xia-Su inclined her head in response, before she went back the way she came. Her limp was worse today- it was going to rain, after all.
He didn't end up wearing the new set of clothes that day. It was the right call- the rain had started late in the morning, and was showing no signs of letting up, even going into the evening. All of Toph's lessons had been canceled, and she was confined to her room, as if her parents were afraid she'd slip on a wet patch and crack her head open.
Somehow he doubted it.
"I hate the rain." Toph grumbled. "It makes it so hard to see."
Zuko cocked his only brow, even though the gesture was doubtlessly lost on the blind girl. "How does that work?"
Toph just gave him that wide grin of hers, the one that she didn't show around her parents. "Hey, just because we're friends doesn't mean you get all my secrets, Scruffy."
Zuko blinked at the statement, for a second not sure if he'd heard her right. "I don't- we're friends?"
"We're not?" Toph asked.
"I-" Zuko began, before snapping his mouth shut. The stab of guilt was back, but he forced himself to swallow it. "We've only known each other for a week."
A week in which he'd been lying to her and everyone around her. Li the refugee didn't exist. He was a work of fiction, like in one of his mother's plays, like one of Azula's lies, but worse, because he was the one telling the lies now.
"So?" Toph asked.
"So you barely even know me." Zuko pointed out.
"Eh," Toph shrugged, looking unbothered by this, "-I think I know you just fine."
Zuko frowned, opening his mouth to insist that she didn't, before he shut it again, heaving a long sigh. "Fine. We can be friends, if that's what you want."
Toph just laughed. "Spoken like you have any real say in the matter."
In spite of himself, Zuko laughed. If there was one thing he'd learned about Toph Beifong- the real Toph Beifong, not the meek little girl she showed to her parents- it was that she ultimately didn't need anyone's input. If she said they were friends, he guessed it meant that they were.
For now, at least.
It was still pouring by the time night rolled around, so he didn't even bother waiting for Toph. Given her express dislike for rain, he doubted she'd be sneaking out tonight.
He slept five whole hours that night, waking only when the downpour turned into a drizzle.
(Fires couldn't start in the rain.)
The new clothes were definitely an improvement.
They were still fairly simple, all in all, consisting of a deep green outer robe with paler green trim, and dark brown underclothes. They were unmistakably servant's robes, but they were made of a good material and were fairly easy to move in. They fit better than his stolen clothes, which he folded up and tucked into one corner of his room, next to his borrowed night clothes. It felt a little strange to be wearing green, but then, he wasn't exactly the prince of the Fire Nation anymore. He was an Earth Kingdom servant now, whose name was Li.
Toph's mother made a noise of approval. Toph's father said nothing.
He spared a glance at one of the hallway mirrors, and grimaced, instantly regretting it. He'd been avoiding them ever since he'd gotten his scar, and now he kind of wished he hadn't. Maybe then he would at least have been able to track the progress of the transformation that had left him looking so different from what he remembered. It wasn't just the lack of phoenix tail or even the scar- it was something else, something more fundamental.
Well, at least he probably wouldn't have to worry about anyone recognizing him as Zuko, not when he could barely recognize himself.
(He was still Zuko, though. Maybe he wasn't Prince Zuko anymore, but he was still Zuko. No one could take that away from him, no matter what name he went by.)
His first assigned chore was, thankfully, not cooking. Washing dishes turned out to not be all that complicated, and he only ended up breaking one. It was a testament to how much he'd adjusted to his lack of depth perception that he hadn't shattered more. He was supposed to help cook dinner at the end of the week, though. May Agni have mercy.
(He wasn't sure who, exactly, Agni was supposed to have mercy on in this scenario. Someone, clearly.)
He still didn't eat with the other servants. Not yet.
Toph just grinned at him when he came to greet her that morning, and told him she thought he looked great. It was a trap, and he didn't fall for it.
She wasn't as disappointed by that as he thought she'd be. He filed away the fact that she had even been able to tell that there had been a change for later. He was starting to suspect there was a lot about Toph he didn't know.
Well, two could play at that game.
She snuck out that night. He followed, but lost her somewhere in the forest, even though he'd made sure to keep his footsteps as quiet as possible. Rather than let himself get lost searching for her, he just went back to the Beifong manor and waited for her to come back, hiding in the usual tree.
He thought about confronting her again, but chose not to. There was something about the glint in her otherwise dull grayish-green eyes when she greeted him the next morning that told him she already knew. This was a game to her, and silence during daytime hours was one of the unspoken rules. If he wanted to find out where she was going, he was just going to have to do a better job of catching her.
Never give up without a fight, the knife his Uncle had sent him from Ba Sing Se read.
He didn't intend to.
Two nights passed before Toph snuck out again. He'd learned the layout of the Beifong manor by heart, though probably not as well as Toph knew it, and not nearly as well as he knew all the twists and turns of the royal palace.
His attempt at helping with the laundry could have gone better, but thankfully he hadn't managed to ruin anyone's clothes. Xia Su had laughed, and so had the older man who lived in the room next to his, both of whom had been assigned to laundry duty with him. He should have felt humiliated, but he wasn't. It wasn't the same as Azula's mocking laughter, which still haunted him in his dreams sometimes.
They weren't making fun of him, not really. They were just laughing.
He didn't quite laugh with them. Not yet.
He lost Toph in the forest again, but he managed to do better this time. In his opinion, Toph had to have cheated somewhere along the way, using her earthbending to fool him. Then again, he guessed an earthbender using earthbending wasn't exactly cheating, but it did feel slightly unfair when he couldn't even bend.
Then again, he wasn't entirely sure how firebending could even help with this particular scenario, other than giving him some extra light. But the moon was plenty bright, and his one good eye was still pretty good, so he made do without a guiding flame. His firebending was supposed to be a secret anyways- a secret that was super easy to keep, considering he couldn't even so much as create a single spark at the moment.
So fine. He guessed using earthbending wasn't cheating. That didn't mean Toph had to look so amused about it the next morning.
His first attempt at cooking could have gone worse.
Okay, so if he was going to be honest, he hadn't actually cooked anything. The old lady in charge in charge of preparing dinner had taken one look at him, and regulated him to the cutting board. The other servant with them had looked a little green about letting someone with only one good eye near a knife, but it hadn't been a problem. He was a lot better at estimating the actual distance between himself and a potential weapon than he was at estimating the distance between himself and anything else, even if he was the one holding the weapon.
It was a good thing chopping vegetables turned out to actually be relaxing, because trying to follow Toph that night had turned out to be downright frustrating. Not only did he lose her, he also managed to get lost- it took him nearly two hours to find his way back to the Beifong manor.
He made a mental note to familiarize himself with the surrounding area as much as possible. That wasn't going to happen again.
At least Toph didn't know about that.
"Huan," Toph began, "-do you think you could find Li a map of the area? I'm sure he'll want to leave on his days off, and I wouldn't want him getting lost."
Master Yu didn't teach Toph any actual earthbending this time either.
As per Toph's request, he spent nearly the entire training session staring at the back of his head. He didn't even really glare at him- just plain staring was enough- but apparently it was enough to do the trick. The fact that he didn't even have to try normally would have stung, but in this case it was worth it, if he could make him feel just as uncomfortable and frustrated as Toph herself felt.
"Good job, Scruffy." Toph told him later, once Master Yu was gone. "I think you really spooked him this time."
Zuko just shrugged. "You did ask me to."
Toph just grinned. "I'm just glad you remembered."
"I have a good memory." Zuko said. "And he is kind of obnoxious."
Toph laughed, in that loud way she did when no one else was around to hear it. This was his second week here, so even that one glaring guard with the attitude problem wasn't shadowing him anymore. He got the feeling the other guard- Huan, the one who had made his cuffs loose on purpose- had been keeping an eye on him, but he didn't get a lot of chances to talk to the manor's guards, despite effectively being one himself.
"I did tell you as much." Toph said.
"Well, you were right." Zuko admitted. "He is. He's clearly babying you."
He expected Toph to vehemently agree, but instead she just looked downcast. "I just wish my parents would see it that way."
Zuko frowned, tilting his head. "Have you tried talking to them about it?"
"It wouldn't matter even if I did." Toph shook her head. "They wouldn't listen. If anything, it might just make things worse."
Zuko's frown deepened, his gaze falling on the floor. He thought of his own father, and the way he'd begged and pleaded with him, told him that he didn't want to fight him. How that had backfired on him in the worst way possible.
"Yeah," he finally said, "-I get that."
"What were they like?" Toph looked up at him. She didn't usually bother looking at people when she talked to them, but she did now. "Your parents, I mean."
"My mother was great." Zuko said, without hesitation. "My father... my father wasn't."
He touched his scar without meaning to. He could barely feel his fingers on his face, like the ghost of a touch. He wondered how unbalanced all his expressions were now, if he looked mean and cruel no matter what kind of face he was making. He'd never been mean like his father wanted him to be, so he'd made him look mean instead.
Toph just frowned, saying nothing for a long moment. When she finally spoke, her voice was uncharacteristically quiet, even if he factored in her docile facade.
"Is he the reason you can't go home?"
Dropping his hand from his face, Zuko swallowed. "Yeah."
"Did he," Toph almost hesitated- and Toph never hesitated, in so far as he knew, "-did he hurt you?"
"Yeah," Zuko admitted, not seeing any point in lying, "-he did."
There was another long silence, Toph clenching her tiny fists as if she was looking for someone to hurt, but couldn't find anyone. Not that he would let her anywhere near his father. She could be the greatest earthbender in the world, and it still wouldn't be enough. Not when her opponent was a monster who melted children's faces.
"If she can't use them," he could almost hear his father say, "-why does she even need her eyes?"
Toph looked up at him, alarmed, and for a split second, he was afraid he'd actually said something out loud. But it was concern that her brows creased with, not anything else.
"You know," Toph began, almost seeming careful with her words for once, "-I think I didn't get my fill of stupid breathing exercises today. Maybe I'll do some more."
There was a pause as she sat down, before very purposefully glancing his way. "You could join me."
"I'm not an earthbender." Zuko mumbled.
"Maybe not." Toph said. "But you look like you could use them."
In spite of himself, he felt the faintest upward twitch of his lips. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Toph challenged. "Now are you going to shut up and breathe with me, or do I need to drag you down here myself?"
Zuko just held up his hands in defeat, before awkwardly taking a seat close to her. Toph smiled, then exhaled, her breathing growing slow and rhythmic. He mimicked her. It felt strange not to be breathing in his usual meditative pattern, yet somehow there was still something almost calming about it. They fell into a strangely comfortable silence, one punctuated only by the sounds of their breathing.
It was... kind of nice, actually.
"Huh," Toph finally broke the silence what felt like hours later, "-what do you know. That wasn't actually boring. I guess good company really does improve everything."
"Yeah," Zuko agreed, a faint smile on his lips, "-I guess it does."
He didn't wake that night, not even once.
He felt like he'd been close to having a nightmare once- but just before his dreams could give way to the acrid scent of smoke and boiling flesh, a strong hand gripped his wrist, pulling him away from it, away from his father's burning hand and his sister's gleeful smile. Instead his nose was filled with the scent of earth, with the fire lilies that his mother had once loved, with the gentle scent of jasmine tea.
He woke with the dawn, calm and refreshed.
He cleaned himself quickly and swiftly, avoiding the other servants, just as he always did. But instead of grabbing a bowl of food from the communal kitchen and disappearing elsewhere into the servant's quarters with it, this time he sat down with it. Not at the long table all the household servants shared, but on the ledge of a window, far enough away so that nobody could touch him.
But close enough that for once, he was actually there.
Xia-Su caught his eye, and smiled. He didn't quite smile back, but it was enough. The man whose room was next to his- he really needed to learn his name, needed to learn all their names- gave him a little wave, to which he politely nodded back.
If she ever saw this, saw him dressed in green servant's wear, mingling with Earth Kingdom servants like he was one of them, Azula would probably laugh at him.
That was fine. Let her laugh.
At least he was in good company for once.