In spite of everything that had happened, he still rose with the sun.
His inner flame flickered, rousing him from unconsciousness. He groaned, pushing himself up into a sitting position. After that night, he'd gone back to sleeping poorly again. He'd both kind of expected it and yet was still somehow disappointed by that fact. Insomnia had become a constant companion of his ever since his mother had left, so the idea that he could fall back into sleeping through the night just like that just didn't seem realistic.
The nightmares could only stay away for so long.
Last night's had been... different, but all the more unsettling for it. He could barely remember its contents now, but he knew that his sister had been there, watching him, a smile on her face. So had Toph, but the blind girl wasn't looking at him- instead, her back was turned.
It felt like a rejection.
Drawing in a deep breath, Zuko closed his eyes, letting himself feel the sun. Over the course of the past few months, he'd slowly let himself fall back into the habit of daily sunrise meditations. He wished he could do it outside, where he could feel the sun's rays on his skin, but he knew that was a risk he couldn't afford to take. He couldn't let anyone find out that he was actually a firebender.
Even if he still wasn't able to bend any fire. If he concentrated, he could sort of manage heat, but actual flames still eluded him. Every time he came close, he just... chickened out and ended up with nothing more than a puff of smoke.
It didn't stop him from trying, though. He wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to use his firebending for combat again, but it would be nice if he could at least start a fire without having to use spark rocks or a match.
It would also be nice if he could handle even that much without sometimes flinching.
Thankfully, it being the height of summer now, there wasn't much use for fires, even if the summers in Gaoling paled in comparison the summers back in the Fire Nation. Ember Island would have been nearly twice as hot around this time of year. Thinking about his family's beach house made him think of better times- back when his family had actually been happy, however fleeting that had been.
Thinking back on those times now though, he wondered if his father had ever loved him, or if he'd just put up with him. He wondered what had made him stop.
Azula, he thought. Azula had bent blue fire, and then...
Letting out a frustrated huff, Zuko opened his eyes. Somehow he didn't think he'd get much meditation done today.
Hauling himself to his feet, Zuko grabbed his little basket of toiletries. The halls were still empty and thankfully, so were the communal baths. He still wasn't fully comfortable with them, too used to having his own private washroom for much of his life. Washing himself as quickly as possible, he changed his clothes just as quickly, donning the deep green robes that had been gifted to him by Poppy.
He'd gotten used to wearing green.
"Early as ever, Li."
He'd gotten used to being called that too.
His hands froze in the middle of wrapping his wrists, glancing over towards the door with his good eye. He winced when he realized it was his room neighbor, recognizing that frankly unflattering mustache quicker than he did anything else. He'd since learned that the man's name was Yun, and that he was in charge of serving the Beifong family their daily tea.
No wonder he always smelled faintly of jasmine. In an odd way, it made him think of his uncle.
He wondered what the old man was doing right about now.
"Sorry," Zuko said, "-I didn't mean to wake you."
"You?" Yun snorted. "You're as quiet as a rabbit-mouse. I don't think you could wake me if you tried."
"Oh." Zuko frowned. "Well, that's... good then?"
"Personally I'd prefer it if you stomped around a bit more." Yun observed, setting his own basket down, but thankfully choosing to not disrobe yet. "You're what, fourteen?"
"Thirteen." Zuko corrected. He wouldn't be fourteen for another couple of months.
(He'd been born in the dead of winter. A bad sign, by Fire Nation standards.)
"Thirteen." Yun said, shaking his head. "That's too young to be feeling like you have to sneak around everywhere. Relax, kid. No one here is going to hurt you."
Zuko ducked his head, disguising it as a nod. He knew that wasn't true, but he couldn't exactly say that. While no one here might have cause to hurt Li, he wasn't Li. Maybe he'd gotten used to the name, but it didn't change the fact that he'd once been Zuko, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, and that fact would never change.
He could never be Li. Not really.
"Ah, go on." Yun said after a moment. "I know Miyuki's got you down for breakfast duty today. Just try and remember that eggshells don't go in the egg dishes this time."
Zuko winced, recalling all too clearly the first time he'd been allowed to actually cook. He'd been proud of the fact that he'd managed not to burn anything, but nobody had told him that he was supposed to pick out the stray bits of eggshell. Thankfully, the other servants had handled his misstep with humor- one had even downed the entire plate anyways and then asked for an extra helping of the crunchy eggs.
He was positive now that most of them had realized he was a noble- or well, that he had been. He had no claim to nobility now, especially not here, deep in the Earth Kingdom.
"I'll be sure to keep that in mind." Zuko said, before hastily taking his leave.
He briefly went back to his room to put down his basket, and to grab his knife, sheathing the blade back into his boot. He would leave his dao here until it was time to actually go to work, but there was still something comforting about having the steel on him, even in a place that was supposedly safe.
Well. Safe for Li, at least.
Thankfully, he wasn't assigned any actual cooking tasks today either. Old Lady An had given him that look, and had then handed him a bowl with a firm instruction to start mixing. He'd done so without compliant, eyeing the cooking fire somewhat warily. Today wasn't a good day, he decided, if that small amount of fire was making him feel so anxious.
Normally he was better about this. Normally he had to actually make the fire to be worried about it- whether that meant creating it by actually firebending (not that he even could) or by using more mundane methods. External fires had made him fearful too at first, but he'd very slowly started to get over it. Normally it wasn't even a problem, but today he found that he wasn't comfortable letting the blaze out of his sight.
Old Lady An angled her body in such a way that he could. Normally he would be embarrassed about how obvious his own fear was, but right now he could only be grateful. After all, it wasn't like it was hard to tell that he might have a problem with fire- not when the very source of his phobia was permanently burned into his face.
Afraid of it or not, he could still feel the fire, ready and waiting for him to take control of it. He made sure to keep his breathing as calm and level as possible, not wanting to scorch everyone's food- or worse. Admittedly, it would be pretty hard to set the stone kitchen on fire, though not impossible.
Once he was done mixing- a fact he determined only by Old Lady An taking the mixing bowl from him- she had him move on to fetching water from the well outside. It was hard work, but he did it without compliant- he'd begun to recover from those four months he'd spent half-starving himself in the wilderness.
He looked... better, he guessed. His scar was still raw and ugly, but not quite as raw and ugly as it had been, and his hair was still a scruffy mess. It refused to grow where he'd been burned- he'd since resigned himself to only having the one eyebrow. But at least his ribs weren't quite so prominent anymore, his cheeks not as sallow.
He didn't look starved.
He still didn't look like himself, but he looked like... well, he looked like Li, he guessed. Li, the Earth Kingdom refugee, a nonbender who worked in the service of the Beifong family.
Toph's best friend.
He smiled at the thought of the little earthbender. He still hadn't been successful in his attempts to catch her in the forest, but far from giving up, he'd redoubled his efforts. He had memorized the map of the area he'd been given, and on more than one occasion had spent his breaks wandering the area, mapping the landmarks of the forest in his mind. He'd gotten better at navigating in the dark, without the aid of a fire, though he still struggled when the moon was absent from the sky.
Darkness didn't matter squat to Toph, of course.
He still hadn't figured out how it was that she seemed to be able to see despite being blind, but he bet it had something to do with earthbending. It was obvious even to him that she was way beyond the skill level Master Yu taught her at. He was surprised to discover that he even taught her any actual earthbending at all, but apparently, he did. Once a month, he would run Toph through a series of basic stances- baby steps, Toph had called them afterwards when no one but him was around to hear her gripe.
He had to wonder what she did before he came along.
Granted, his knowledge about earthbending was pretty limited. They'd never taught him anything about the other three elements at the royal palace- he'd gotten a brief overview, and that was it. Why would they, when everyone in the Fire Nation assumed that they were weaker and inferior to firebending? Maybe if he'd stuck around long enough to get proper military training, he would have learned more about how to defend himself from earth and waterbending, but that was it.
But if Toph could somehow see using it, then clearly earthbending was so much more than just fire's inferior element, barely even worth mentioning. Not that he even thought that anymore, not after everything he'd seen and experienced. So much of what had been taught to him was lies- why should this be any different?
Sometimes it was hard to reconcile just how much of his childhood had been made up of lies. No wonder Azula had turned into a liar- she'd always been good at playing the game she was given. If everyone around her was lying, it was only natural that she wanted to be the best at that too.
But then, was he really any better? He was lying to all these people, lying to Toph. They were so kind to him, and he was taking advantage of it, exploiting their generosity by pretending he was Earth Kingdom, by pretending that he was a harmless non-bending refugee running from the war, not the exiled prince of the Fire Nation.
He was a liar, just like Azula.
The thought sat like a stone in his stomach all throughout the morning meal. Even though he had just recently started sitting with the other servants- at the very end of the table, but still- he chose to sit away from them this time, back on the window ledge he'd eaten his first meal here on. Nobody stopped him- if there was one thing people around here were good at, it was giving him his space when he needed it.
They all thought he'd been traumatized by the war.
When he'd first arrived here, he'd thought Gaoling was unaffected by the war. In hindsight, it had been a stupid thing to think- of course it wasn't. Just because it didn't show any of the physical signs of it, didn't mean it wasn't. Nowhere in the Earth Kingdom was safe, not even Ba Sing Se- his uncle had proven that much, even if he'd ultimately failed.
He was almost grateful for that failure now. The thought twisted at his gut, knowing all too well exactly what it was that had caused his uncle to call of the siege. Uncle was the one person who had looked out for him since his mother had left. How could he possibly be grateful for his son's death?
Nearly everyone at the table had been effected by the war in some way. Yun had lost a cousin, a talented young earthbender whose real passion had been pottery, not fighting, and Old Lady An had lost two grandsons, plus a niece who had been taken in the night. Miyuki, the head servant, had still been a little girl when the Fire Nation army raided her town, and sometimes she still trembled when she smelled unexpected smoke.
He still didn't know what had happened to Xia Su's leg, but he didn't doubt it was related to the war too.
He wondered sometimes what they saw when they looked at his scarred, golden-eyed face. If it was true that none of them recognized that he was Fire Nation.
Yang did. His expression turned sour as he thought about the guard. So far he'd somehow managed to avoid any real confrontation with him, but he wasn't sure how long that would last, just like he wasn't sure how long he could keep pretending he was Earth Kingdom. He knew he should start thinking up some kind of cover story in the event that it happened, but he'd never been able to bring himself to do it. It was bad enough that he was already lying to these people, he didn't want to further that lie.
If they found out, he'd probably be better off leaving anyways. Nobody wanted the Fire Nation around- especially not a firebender.
"Hey," Xia Su called out to him once the meal was done, right before he was about to leave, "-are you okay?"
"Yeah," Zuko lied, "-I'm fine."
He was already lying to everyone. What was one more?
Gritting his teeth, Zuko fought the urge to reach for his swords. Instead he let out a very slow, highly regulated breath, grateful that there were no flames nearby to react to the subtle form of firebending.
"What do you want, Yang?" Zuko asked, lifting his head to look at the guardsman. He was already in a weird mood- talking to Yang was the last thing he wanted to do right now.
"That's Guardsman Yang to you, kid." Yang said. The burly earthbender drew forward, looming over him with every inch his massive height gave to him.
Zuko wasn't intimidated.
"Nobody calls you that." Zuko pointed out instead, lifting his chin in a vain attempt to make himself look taller. He knew was decently tall for a thirteen year old, but he still had a lot of growing to do before he could even hope to catch up to an adult man, nevermind someone as freakishly tall as Yang.
Not that he'd even want to be that tall. That just seemed inconvenient.
"You've got a real lack of respect, you know that, kid?" Yang asked.
Maybe there's nothing to respect, Zuko wanted to shoot back, but somehow managed to stop himself. If it involved literally biting down on his tongue, nobody had to know.
"Can we just make this quick?" Zuko asked. "I'm supposed to escort Toph to the garden room for her morning meal. I don't want to be late."
If he was going to be a servant, he was at least going to be good at it. Toph's father valued punctuality. He was going to be on time.
Yang frowned. "You refer to the young lady real informally."
"If you've got a problem with that, you should take it up with her." Zuko challenged. "She's the one who told me to."
Yang didn't seem to have an argument to that, so instead he changed the topic. "Heard the Fire Nation made another failed attempt to take Omashu."
Right. He should have known. He seriously wasn't in the mood to deal with this.
"So?" Zuko asked. "I don't see what that has to do with me. I've never been to Omashu."
"Just thought you might find it interesting." Yang said, smirking like he'd somehow won. Unlike the clear rules his game with Toph had, he had no idea what the rules to Yang's game were. It was like trying to learn Pai Sho from Uncle, but instead of just telling him the rules, he expressed them through proverbs.
Then again, in Yang's case, he was probably just too stupid for rules.
"You're right." Zuko said. "I do."
"Oh, you do, do you?" Yang asked, looking almost insufferably smug.
"Yeah." Zuko said, locking eyes with him, putting everything he could muster into his glare. "It's always nice to know when the Fire Nation loses."
That wiped the smug look off of Yang's face. Whatever response he was expecting, it wasn't that. He didn't know why not- he didn't want people to know he was Fire Nation, least of all Yang. Of course he wasn't going to say that he was disappointed that they'd lost.
He wasn't even disappointed! He hadn't been lying when he said he was glad the Fire Nation lost. Omashu was one of the Earth Kingdom's last two strongholds- it falling would mean only Ba Sing Se was left.
He just... he just hoped it had been a loss with as few casualties as possible, on both sides. Enough blood had been spilled during this war already.
Finally, Yang broke eye contact. "I'm still keeping an eye on you, kid."
"I thought your job was to guard the house, not watch the servants." Zuko said.
Yang just sneered. "We both know you're no servant, Li."
Biting down on his tongue again, Zuko took in a deep breath. He was done with this conversation. Brushing past Yang, the bulky guard made no move to stop him. Part of him was grateful- he wasn't sure what he would have done if the man had laid a hand on him.
Part of him almost wanted him to, just so he could finally put the jerk in his place. Whether that involved taking him down with his blades, or somehow getting his firebending back out of pure spite, he wasn't sure. He just wanted it.
But no, he couldn't do that. He was trying to avoid confrontations with Yang, not make them any worse- which attacking him would definitely do, even if it wasn't with firebending. He doubted he'd ever win over his trust, but at the very least, he didn't want to give him any further reasons not to trust him.
What did he even think he was going to do, kidnap Toph? What would the Fire Nation even do with her? It wasn't like they needed the money. His father's war machine practically funded itself.
Huffing, he stormed down the hall, just barely managing to compose himself in time to greet Toph. She cast a suspicious glance towards him, but they were already short on time as it was thanks to Yang's... interruption. With any luck, she'd leave it.
(But then, he never did have any luck.)
Once the morning meal was over, Zuko had lead Toph back to her own chambers. He'd barely said two words to her before she ordered him to sit his butt down before she dragged it down.
(Her words, not his.)
Not having it in him to protest, Zuko did just that, sitting crosslegged some distance away from her. That apparently wasn't good enough, because the Beifong heiress stood up and marched right over to him, plopping down right in front of him.
"Even I can tell you look like a wreck today, Scruffy," she began, "-and I'm blind."
The blind joke still somehow managed to make him smile, despite his sour mood. Toph had a way of doing that.
"I look fine." Zuko protested, though there was no actual venom in his tone. "You just need to get your eyes checked."
Toph beamed- that wide, tooth baring smile she only showed when they were alone together. The one no one else got to see.
Somehow that only made him feel more guilty.
"Wow, Scruffy," she said, "-and here I didn't know you could be funny."
"You spent like, three minutes cackling at me in the forest when I ran into that tree branch." Zuko pointed out, his hand straying up to his forehead. He'd had a bruise for days afterwards. "I could hear you the entire time."
"Yeah, and you sulked about it for like, three days." Toph said. "Jokes have to be intentional. That was physical comedy."
Zuko just grumbled, dropping his hand from his forehead. "It hurt."
"That's what you get for having a delicate baby forehead." Toph shrugged.
"I don't have a-!" Zuko began, before he choked back his own protest, instead settling for quietly glaring at Toph. It didn't do any good, but that didn't stop him.
"Hey, it's okay." Toph said. "Not everyone can be as rock solid as I am."
Zuko snorted. "You weigh about as much as wet poodle-monkey does."
Toph's grin turned almost wicked. "Oh, you think I'm just going to take that from the walking beanpole, huh?"
"I know you won't." Zuko said, the edges of his lips curling upwards in a grin. Toph was nothing if not infectious. "But there's nothing you can do about it here."
Toph went silent for a good moment- before she cackled, almost with glee. "Oh, you're on."
"Looking forward to it." Zuko said, for a second all but forgetting what had put him in such a mood in the first place.
It came crashing back quickly, causing him to almost deflate. Right. No matter how friendly he acted with Toph, it didn't change the fact that he was lying to her. They were supposed to be friends, and she didn't even know his real name. He might not be an expert on friendships, but he was pretty sure that wasn't how they were supposed to work.
And he... he wanted to be friends with Toph. He hadn't been certain, not at first, but the more he got to know her, the more positive he was that he did. He could see himself in the stubborn little earthbender, and talking to her... it was fun. Being around Toph made him feel happy, and he hadn't felt happy in a long time.
Toph's mouth screwed into a frown. "Wow, you're really in a bad mood today, Scruffy."
"I don't want to talk about it." Zuko mumbled, staring at the ground, all earlier mirth faded.
"Suit yourself." Toph shrugged. "I'm not good with that emotional stuff anyways."
Zuko shot her a grateful smile, even if she couldn't see it. He wondered if he could tell Toph, before he quickly dismissed it. No matter how easy their friendship seemed, it was all entirely based on the assumption that he was Earth Kingdom. If she knew he was Fire Nation...
(She turned her back on him.)
Gritting his teeth, he clenched his fists. Why couldn't he be Earth Kingdom? Maybe then he would have had a father who loved him, a sister who wasn't crazy, and mother who actually bothered to stick around. Maybe he wouldn't have been branded and banished, left to wander enemy territory and lie to nice girls who just wanted to be his friend.
No sooner than he thought that, did his stomach twist in shame. He didn't think his mother would like it if she knew he was ashamed of being Fire Nation. Of being a firebender.
But with everything he'd seen, it was hard not to be.
"Hey," Toph's voice was sharp, drawing him out of himself, "-Li. Stop."
He flinched at the sound of his fake name, the sound of it like a stab to the heart. That's not my name was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. If she knew... if Toph knew, it would all be over. They couldn't be friends anymore. She'd hate him.
Agni help him, he didn't want that.
Just like that, Toph's hands were over his own. Toph never touched him, outside of that first day where she'd dragged him by the wrist. He flinched, but didn't pull his hands away even though he desperately wanted to. The earthbender just frowned, taking his clenched fists by the wrists, turning them over so she could press her palms against his. He sagged a bit at the touch, realizing abruptly that it had been months since he'd let anyone touch him. Every time they did, it just brought back memories of his father, of his burning hand caressing his cheek, of the scent of melting flesh and burning hair...
But Toph didn't.
Her hands were surprisingly delicate, where his weren't. Years of practice with the dual dao had left calluses, and months of being away from the royal palace had left his hands rough and dry. There was dirt underneath his fingernails that he'd never quite managed to figure out how to get rid of without a servant doing it for him. He hadn't had the nerve to ask anyone how to yet.
Toph's soft, uncalloused palms pressed up against his felt almost reassuring.
"This isn't just a mood, is it?" Toph asked.
"I thought you said you didn't do emotional stuff." Zuko replied numbly.
"I don't." Toph said. "But this seems pretty important. And you're my friend."
Toph cut him off. "If you say it's nothing, I'm making my next pit trap extra deep."
"I'm not falling for another one of your stupid pit traps." Zuko mumbled. "That was only the one time."
"Funny." Toph said. "That's not how I remember it."
"Yeah, well you remembered wrong." Zuko said, still not quite looking at her.
"Nope, don't think I did." Toph said. "But seriously, stop changing the subject. What's wrong?"
"You're the one who brought up the pit traps." Zuko pointed out, before heaving a sigh. He didn't want to talk about this, especially not with Toph. Telling her would be the same as effectively ending their friendship.
Why would anyone want to be friends with a liar?
(Mai and Ty Lee were friends with Azula, but he didn't... he didn't want that kind of friendship for himself. It wasn't right.)
"I," Zuko found himself saying anyways, his own stupid mouth betraying him, "-I'm not- my name isn't Li."
To his surprise, Toph just snorted, her lips twitching into a grin. "No, really? I never would have guessed."
In spite of himself, Zuko felt himself bristle. She was acting like this was some kind of joke. "Hey, this is serious! I-"
"I already know that, stupid." Toph cut him off. "I've known from the start that you've been lying your butt off."
Zuko slammed his mouth shut, staring at Toph in confusion. "You- how?"
"Trade secret. Can't tell you." Toph smirked. "Anyways, the point is if you're feeling guilty about lying to me, don't. I already know, and I don't care, so worrying about it is stupid."
Zuko swallowed, staring at the girl like she'd just grown another head. She might as well have. That wasn't what he'd expected her to say at all.
"How much," he hesitated, anxiously wetting his lips, "-how much do you know?"
Toph arched a brow. "I just said I knew that you were lying. I didn't say anything about knowing the truth."
To his surprise, he almost felt relieved. She didn't know who he was. They could still be friends. She wouldn't turn her back on him, like in that damn dream-
That stupid dream! That was the reason he'd been feeling so off today, wasn't it? All because he'd had a stupid nightmare. He had nightmares all the time! Why was this one getting to him so much?
And how pathetic was he, to get so hung up over a nightmare in the first place? Azula didn't have nightmares. But then, Azula didn't seem to have a conscience, and neither did their father. His father- Ozai would have said it was a sign of weakness.
He was starting to think otherwise.
"How can you," Zuko began, hating how small his voice sounded, "-how can you be okay with that? I've been lying to you all this time. We're supposed to be friends."
He winced almost immediately, realizing with a sudden clarity that he'd walked into some kind of trap. He didn't know how, but that slowly spreading gleeful smile on Toph's face was proof enough that he had.
"So you do think we're friends." She finally said.
Oh. Oh, he hadn't thought about it before, but he'd never... he might have begrudgingly agreed that they were friends that one time, but he'd never come out and said it.
"I- look, that isn't the point." Zuko said, glowering at her uselessly. "I'm lying. I'm a liar. You don't even know my real name! Shouldn't you be more upset?"
"Nah." Toph shrugged. "I don't need to know your name to know who you are."
"But you don't know anything about me!" Zuko protested.
"I know that when you look at me, you actually see me." Toph said. "You don't just see a helpless blind girl who needs to be protected. You see me."
"I'm not who you think I am." Zuko insisted. "If you knew, you'd-"
"What, stop being friends with you?" Toph snorted. "I'll be the judge of that, Scruffy. Besides, you can't fake your whole personality."
Zuko opened his mouth to say something to that, but couldn't think of a single protest. Still, it didn't feel like it should be that simple, not when what he was hiding was so big.
"How do you know you can trust me?" Zuko finally asked.
Something in Toph's expression shifted into an emotion he couldn't quite place. "You told me the reason you couldn't go home was because of your father. That he hurt you."
Zuko said nothing, just ducked his head. There was no reason to. Toph couldn't see his face, nor the ugly scar that stretched across the left half of it. Even if she could, it still would have been a pointless action- he just didn't have enough hair to cover the scar. It was growing back steadily, but it would still be awhile yet before he got anywhere near close to having hair long enough for bangs.
"What about it?" Zuko asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
"I know you weren't lying about that part." Toph told him. "I can't think of a truth more painful than that, and you still told me."
Zuko swallowed, wondering if that was really true. His father had wanted him gone. Wasn't that an even worse truth than the fact that he had burned him?
"It's my fault." Zuko said before he could stop himself. "I refused to fight him."
Toph narrowed her eyes. "That doesn't make any sense. Why would your father want to fight you?"
Zuko chewed on his lip, wondering why he'd even told her that. But he'd already said it, so... he might as well finish the story, he guessed.
"Because I disrespected him." Zuko told her, purposefully leaving his words vague. "I spoke out when I wasn't supposed to. And I did it in front of an important audience."
"So he challenged you to a fight?" Toph asked.
"I- no. Or at least, I didn't think he did, not at first." Zuko admitted. "I thought it was the person I had spoken out against, but it wasn't. It was him."
"He didn't even tell you?" Toph asked in disbelief. "That's messed up, Scruffy."
"Yeah, it is kind of messed up." Zuko felt almost distant as he agreed, his mind half back in the Agni Kai chamber. Only Toph's steady grip kept him from going there entirely, rooting him to the present. "I realize that now. But back then, all I could think of was how much I didn't want to fight him. So I begged, I pleaded, and he-"
He drew his hand away from Toph's own, touching his scar. He couldn't bring himself to say that he'd burned him. It would have made it way too obvious that his father, at least, had been a firebender. And while there was a huge jump between that and Fire Lord, he still felt like he'd said too much already.
But Toph said she trusted him. She knew he was a liar, and she still trusted him. Still thought of him as her friend.
Toph held up a hand, the one he'd let go of, letting it hover by his face. "Can I touch it?"
Zuko swallowed, then shook his head before quickly realizing that she couldn't see that. "No. Sorry, I don't think- I don't think I'm ready for that yet."
Toph dropped her hand, but didn't move her other, her soft palm still pressed up against his. She had cold hands, not like his, sun warm and capable of handling intense flames without burning.
If only the rest of him were so lucky.
"You know," Toph said after a moment of consideration, "-I'm a liar too."
He blinked, taken aback by the sudden statement. That... was actually true, wasn't it? Toph was lying just as much as he was, pretending to be someone she wasn't. While she wasn't lying about her name or her background, she was putting on a character in front of her parents, the guards- everyone that wasn't him, really.
Only around him, the liar, did she feel safe enough to let her character drop.
"That's different. You're acting, not lying." Zuko said with a slight huff. "The only reason you have to hide anything is because your parents are blinder than you are."
Toph cackled. "Wow, two jokes in one day. That's a new record."
"Yeah, well maybe you're rubbing off on me." Zuko muttered, trying to pretend the corner of his lips weren't currently trying to curl up into a smile.
"You make it sound like a bad thing." Toph said. "My sense of humor is top notch. You're learning from the best, Scruffy."
"Good to know." Zuko remarked dryly. "Anyways, now who's changing the subject?"
Toph just grinned. "Didn't know there was anything left to discuss. You're a liar and I'm acting my butt off. What's left?"
"The truth?" Zuko offered helplessly.
Toph's grin turned into a smirk, a glint that was becoming increasingly familiar to him in her milky eyes. "What, you think you're going to get me to spill all my secrets just by asking? And here I thought you were going to show me how much of a wet poodle-monkey I am. Don't tell me you've turned pig-chicken."
Zuko bristled at the accusation, narrowing his eyes. "I'm not pig-chicken!"
"And that's not what I meant," he added, deflating slightly, "-I meant me."
"Eh," Toph shrugged, "-you can tell me when you're ready."
Zuko just stared at her, searching her face for any hint of a lie- but found none. Toph really didn't care, which wasn't how he thought this conversation was going to go at all. He'd thought... well, he'd thought things would have turned out much worse, and that he would have blurted out something he couldn't take back, or that just the fact that he had been lying to her would have been enough for her to turn cold towards him.
But she just... didn't care. It didn't matter.
He still didn't think it should be that simple, but it wasn't like he could make Toph care. Something told him that he could blurt out the truth, the whole truth right here and now, and Toph would take it in without even so much as batting an eye.
He wasn't going to, though. He wasn't ready yet.
Exhaling, Zuko felt his tension slip away. Toph not caring might not solve the problem that he was still lying to everyone else, but it made the burden easier to bear.
"Okay." Zuko breathed. "Okay."
Toph beamed, giving his hand a quick squeeze, before she finally pulled hers away. He nearly reached out to stop her, but couldn't bring himself to. It felt like too much, too soon.
"Now that that's settled," Toph went on to say, "-I look forward to seeing exactly how you plan on showing me up, Scruffy."
Zuko winced. Oh. Right. He had promised that, hadn't he? Crap. He didn't actually have a plan to show Toph up, he'd just blurted that out in the heat of the moment.
But he couldn't let Toph know that.
"Just wait." Zuko said, trying to exude confidence. "The next time you go to play in the woods, I'll make you tell me your secrets."
He didn't need Toph's cackle to know that she knew he was lying.
You know what? Just for that, he was actually going to do it. Mark his words- he was going to catch Toph Beifong.