There were some benefits to having servants, Toph had long since decided.
Let it be known that she'd never exactly been a morning person. One could argue that her late nights spent earthbending in secret probably didn't help much, but she knew that regardless of whether she'd spent half the night perfecting her bending or not, she'd still wake up the next morning bleary-eyed and almost dead to the world. Granted, she could wake up early if she wanted to- but the emphasis here was on if she wanted to.
Most of the time, that answer was no.
So yeah. There was something to be said for servants who would help wash and dress her while she was still half-dead to the world. It made things so much easier.
(Just for the record, she could totally do all this stuff by herself. She just chose not to.)
"There you are, young miss. All ready."
Toph fought the urge to yawn. Honestly, given the choice, she'd rather go back to sleep. But if there was one thing her parents were attempting to drill into her, it was punctuality.
Besides, it would be rude to keep Scruffy waiting. She could sense him just outside the door, his arms crossed in front of him as he leaned against the wall. He didn't seem as stiff as he did yesterday, so maybe their little talk had done him some good after all.
Either that, or he'd managed to avoid running into Yang today. She would have thought the guy would have given up eventually- it had been a few months since Li had been hired as her bodyguard. But apparently for all his lackluster skills, Yang at least had the stubbornness of a proper earthbender.
Shame he wasted it on harassing kids. She'd say the guy should get a hobby, but she was starting to suspect antagonizing Li was his hobby.
Toph inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. "Thank you. You are dismissed."
The trio of servants bowed, swiftly leaving. She could hear one of them exchanging a brief word with Li, presumably telling him that it was safe to go in now. Shifting her feet slightly, she felt him bow his head in acknowledgment, waiting for the servants to properly leave before he entered.
"Well someone's looking better." Toph beamed as he came in.
She could practically feel the look Li shot her, which just made her grin grow all the wider. "You didn't show up last night."
"I was trying to let you sleep." Toph said, then paused, only a little annoyed that he'd avoided her trap. "Wait- don't tell me you waited up for me all night?"
"No!" Li said quickly- too quickly. "Just some of it."
"Some of it." Toph repeated. Come to think of it, Li was pretty much always awake whenever she chose to sneak out. It wasn't even like she had a set schedule or anything- everything was decided by her whims. "You know, I've been meaning to ask you about your sleeping habits. When do you even do it?"
"I sleep." Li said, almost defensively, before deflating slightly. "Sometimes."
"You know, I'm starting to think you might have some bad habits." Toph remarked.
Li just huffed, almost indignant. "I don't want to hear that from someone who refuses to wash her feet unless her servants make her."
Toph grumbled, folding her arms in front of her chest. "Look, you'd understand it if you were an earthbender. And how do you even know that?"
Li just shrugged, but she swore she could feel him smirk. "Servants talk."
"Oh they do, do they?" Toph asked, arching her brows. "Tell me more."
"I could," Li said, "-but then you'd be late for your morning meal with your honored parents."
Toph just snorted, the edge of her lips curling upwards. "Right. Because I'd hate to miss that."
"You'd miss the food." Li said.
Letting out a bark of laughter, Toph nudged Li with her elbow, taking great pains to telegraph the movement as much as she was capable of. His breath didn't hitch in that weird way it always did when someone got too close to him, for which she was grateful. Instead he just rubbed where she'd hit him, muttering something about bony elbows under his breath.
Something had shifted yesterday- or started to. The walls that had guarded Li since the moment she'd met him had shown their first signs of cracking. For all her earthbending prowess, they had shown themselves to be a tough challenger. Creating cracks where she could was about all she could manage. He must have had them up for a long time- probably longer than he'd had whatever injury it was that deformed the left side of his face so badly. She'd obviously never seen it, but Li was right about one thing- servants talked.
And apparently, so did everyone else. Because if she was being perfectly honest, it seemed like it was the servants from whom she heard the least amount of chatter about whatever it was that was apparently wrong with Li's face. There were a few, but they were more hushed conversations as to whether or not he'd accept a gift of medicinal cream, or if he'd just take it the wrong way.
That was where she'd first concluded that whatever had happened to him, it had been recent. And from there, when he'd started talking about his father, and how he was the reason he was never allowed to return home... somehow, she'd just connected the dots.
She couldn't imagine what that was like- to have a father hurt you like that. Not when her own father was so afraid of hurting her that he barely even touched her. But Li's had- and badly, from the sound of it. While she'd never heard any actual specifics, she knew that it was bad- enough to leave his face deformed.
"Always such a pity," she'd caught one of her mother's friends whisper the first time she'd laid eyes on Li, "-to see such a handsome young face destroyed like that. He could have been something."
"It must have been the will of the Spirits that brought him here." Her mother had said in reply. "Toph will never know the difference."
The worst part, Toph thought, was how they talked about him like he wasn't even there. Like he couldn't hear them. But he wasn't deaf, no matter how badly his injury had impacted the hearing in his left ear. She could feel the way he would grow stiff, how he would clench his fists but force himself not to say anything.
She knew exactly what that felt like. It sucked.
He'd already been chased out of his home by his own father, who from the sound of it, was a massive jerk. Who challenged their own thirteen year old son to a serious fight just because he'd spoken when he wasn't supposed to and then went on to permanently maim him? What kind of parent did that?
She might have some issues with her own parents, but at least she knew they loved her. But Li's father? She'd be surprised if he'd ever cared about his kid.
Still, she was glad that he seemed to be feeling better. It had been pretty bad yesterday.
"You're right." Toph said. "I would. Now come on. We wouldn't want to be late."
Li gave her that awkward little half-bow of his, the one he always pulled whenever he wasn't being serious about it. "Of course. Right this way, Lady Beifong."
Toph snickered, but the moment her feet crossed over the threshold of her room, her expression transformed into one that was perfectly neutral. Li had been right about one thing yesterday- she was an actor, and the rest of the manor was her stage. She wished she didn't have to be- that one day her parents would wake up and see her for who she really was, not who they expected her to be because of her blindness.
But even though she knew her parents loved her, it was that same love that blinded them to the truth. She knew all too well that they both thought they were doing the right thing by keeping her isolated from the world, locked up inside her own home- and she'd also learned that this was one fight that she couldn't win.
Not yet, anyways.
One day, Toph thought, stiffly greeting her parents as she entered the dining room, -one day, she would find a way out of this place.
And when she did, she'd be bringing Li with her.
"Now, slowly breathe out."
Toph wanted to scream, not exhale. But it was a feeling that she was used to, so she forced herself to do as she was instructed instead, slowly breathing out. One of these days, she was going to bury Master Yu in a pile of dirt. She'd like to see him earthbend his way out of that.
"Good." Master Yu said, having the audacity to sound pleased, like he wasn't teaching her the most basic things in the whole spirit-damned world over and over again. A two year old could do this. "You are making excellent progress, Toph."
What progress, she wanted to scream. Li's badly muffled snort from the corner of the room was the only thing that stopped her from doing so. True to his promise to her, he typically spent the entirety of her earthbending lessons lurking in the corner, glaring at the back of Master Yu's head. It had been months, and her so-called earthbending master still wasn't used to it. Feeling the way his heartbeat would hasten whenever he caught sight of Li almost made sitting through his boring lessons worth it.
Which wasn't to say he didn't attempt to occasionally grow a back bone. He'd be a pretty pathetic excuse for an adult if he didn't. Judging from the way his spine stiffened at the sound of Li's snort, he was about to.
"Young man," Master Yu began, his efforts to sound as stern as possible hampered by his less than calm heartbeat, "-I do not think there is anything here to laugh about. Toph is working very hard in spite of her disability."
Toph nearly choked. He thought Li was laughing at her about that?
There was a long pause there that told her that Li was staring rather than replying. Finally, he lifted his hand, placing it lightly over the left side of his face.
"You think I'm laughing at her?"
Yu flinched. Badly.
"Right," he stammered, all of his attempts at being stern thrown out the window, "-of course. I did not consider... my apologies."
Toph fought the urge to whistle, wondering just how intimidating Scruffy must look right now. That was the other thing she knew about his injury- that it didn't just make him look ugly to sighted people, it also made him look intimidating. Intimidating enough that a thirteen year old child could stare down a full grown man and win. Even that meathead Yang couldn't last in a staring contest with him.
Why couldn't she do that? So unfair.
Of course, Li, at his core, was just not intimidating, no matter how many fancy sword tricks he knew. Which was why as soon as the moment passed, Li dropped his hand from his face, and turned it so that Yu could presumably only see his unmarred right.
"I just... remembered a funny joke, that's all." He mumbled in what was a clear lie. "Sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt."
She shifted on her feet, picking up on his shame. He wasn't apologizing because he cared about interrupting Yu- he was apologizing because he knew if he didn't, there was a chance that he could lose this job. Not that she'd let her dad fire Li, but it was pretty obvious that he was kind of desperate not to lose this gig.
Desperate, and embarrassed about it.
Yep, Toph thought to herself, definitely a former noble. She didn't know why her parents were so blind to it, when it was so obvious to her. Sure, Li didn't exactly advertise the fact, but the way he carried himself, even the way he spoke sometimes practically screamed nobility.
It said a lot about him that he even could bow his head and accept a lesser station in life- most nobles she knew would balk at the idea of roughing it, much less being reduced to a servant. They would rather die than give up their own misplaced pride- to become a servant would be a fate worse than death to no small number of them. Then again, it wasn't like Li had much of a choice. She couldn't imagine that a father who had fought and disfigured his own son would have left him with his title intact.
But that didn't mean he wasn't embarrassed about how far he'd fallen.
She wished he wouldn't be. She didn't know the whole story, or basically any of it beyond the fact that his dad was not going to be winning any father of the year awards soon, but from what she knew? From what she knew, Li had adapted. Survived. There was nothing embarrassing about that. It just made him tough.
It was part of the reason why she liked him so much. Why they were friends.
Yu cleared his throat. "Very well. Jumping to conclusions was my mistake. Come now, Toph. Let's continue."
The lesson continued, but Li never looked back up from the floor.
"You know I wouldn't let him fire you, right?" She asked after the lesson was done, and Yu was long gone.
"I know," Li told her, his voice unusually soft, "-thanks."
"Good." Toph grinned. "Because if you think you're getting out of being my friend that easily, you've got another thing coming."
Li just laughed, the sound of it still too soft for her tastes but louder than it was when they first met. "You're not letting that go, are you?"
Letting go of the fact that Li had finally admitted that they were friends? Oh no. Not after getting him to admit it was akin to pulling teeth. No, she was going to milk that confession for all it was worth.
"Duh." Toph said. "Befriending you is like taming a feral pygmy puma. It's going on my list of accomplishments."
"Gee," she could almost hear Li roll his eyes, "-thanks."
"Hey, don't worry about it." Toph smiled. "I may not look like it, but I consider myself an animal lover. You could say some of my best friends are animals."
Li remained silent for what she deemed as a suspiciously long time. And then-
"Wow," he said, "-I thought I was your best friend."
Toph choked, before letting out a burst of laughter that was far from ladylike. She'd admit she hadn't expected that. He'd kept the fact that he thought of them as friends under lock and key until he'd been at his most emotionally vulnerable- she hadn't expected him to be so casual about it now that it was out in the open.
But then, Li was just as full of surprises as he was prone to routine. Those two things didn't go together at all, except Li somehow managed to pull it off.
"Three jokes in two days?" Toph asked. "It's like you developed a sense of humor or something."
"Hey!" Li grumbled. "I've always had a sense of humor."
"Really?" Toph asked. "Because that's news to me."
"Well clearly you're going deaf too." Li huffed, folding his arms in front of his chest like the petulant teenager he actually was at heart.
"It's okay, Scruffy." Toph said. "We can still be friends even if your jokes all suck."
Li turned his head, and she was pretty sure he was glaring at her now. "You know what? Just for that, I'm catching you tonight, so you better be ready."
Toph beamed, recognizing a challenge when she heard one. That said- Li, catching her? She'd believe it when it actually happened.
"Oh, I'll be ready." Toph said. "Ready to make you eat dirt, that is."
"No thanks." Li said. "I'm full."
Toph cackled, all while wondering how anyone could find this idiot intimidating.
She took lunch in her private chambers that day. Her father was busy with work, and her mother was visiting with a friend. Usually she just ate alone whenever her parents were too busy to join her for meals, but she'd managed to convince Li to eat with her today. She'd made the same offer a few times before, but this was the first time he'd actually taken it. Sometimes he'd share the snacks that she had brought to her, but this was the first time they'd ever really just sat down and had a meal together.
Thankfully, her servants hadn't even batted an eye at her request for extra portions. Honestly, she'd never thought that sharing a meal could be fun, but it was when she did with Li- even if she did have to listen to him complain about how bland everything was.
"It tastes fine to me, Scruffy." Toph said, taking another bite. "I think your taste buds are just broken."
"My taste buds are working fine, thanks." Li shot back. "It just needs more spice."
"You think everything needs more spice." Toph countered. "You even said it about the sweet cakes I slipped you the other day!"
"Well they did." Li huffed. "The contrast helps bring out the flavor."
"No it doesn't!" Toph protested. "All it does is make things spicy! Who wants spicy sweets?"
Li had the audacity to scoff. "People with taste, maybe."
"Yeah, bad taste." Toph said. "Next you're going to tell me that you actually enjoy papayas."
"Nobody likes papayas." Li said. "Give me some credit."
"Oh," Toph said, her lips curling into a smile, "-so you admit you have bad taste, then."
Li audibly bristled. "That's not what I said!"
"Sure, Scruffy." Toph continued to grin. "I believe you."
Seeming to realize that he'd walked into a trap, Li clamped his mouth shut. She could feel him glaring at her silently from across the table.
She'd just take that as a sign of victory.
Compared to her lighthearted lunch with Li, dinner with her parents was a much more stilted affair- but that was hardly new. Even though her parents always strove for an intimate setting for their personal meals together, she could never forget the servants that lingered silently just in the background. She was certain that they tried to make themselves as invisible as possible, and maybe if she was sighted, it might have actually worked. But she wasn't, so it never quite did.
Then again, she wasn't sure she wanted to be the sort of person who could just forget they were there. Her interactions with other members of the nobility were limited, but she'd spent enough time around them to know that the people who typically could weren't exactly the sort of people she aspired to be. They just seemed like stuck-up jerks.
"Toph," her father's voice was soft, gentle, as if he were afraid that even the slightest elevation in his tone would scar his poor delicate daughter for life, "-I heard you took your lunch in your room today."
Toph paused, a slight frown on her lips. She wasn't sure she liked where this was headed.
"You and mother were both busy." She said, keeping her tone as mild as she could. "I've done the same in the past. I didn't think it would be an issue this time."
"No, no, of course not." Her father said. "But we heard..."
"Darling," her mother began, cutting her father off, "-I know Li is your friend, but you have to understand that there are certain boundaries we do not cross with commoners."
"Boundaries?" Toph blurted out before she could stop herself. "All we did was eat lunch! How is that crossing any boundaries?"
Besides, she was pretty sure Li wasn't actually a commoner- not that she saw any reason why it should matter even if he was. What difference did it make?
She shifted her feet slightly, reading the vibrations of the earth. She could sense Li- he was never allowed into the dining hall itself, and for once, she was actually grateful for that. She just hoped he wasn't hearing any of this- Li's one good ear was sharp, almost as sharp as hers. He wasn't close enough for her to pick up on anything as distinct as a heartbeat, so she couldn't tell for sure.
"That is simply how it is done." Her father said, almost kindly.
It made her want to scream. That was always his answer to everything. But why? Why did it have to be done that way? They were friends. Being friends meant sharing meals together, she knew that much. She heard the servants talk about going to eat with their friends all the time- why couldn't she do the same?
But she couldn't scream. She couldn't shout. She knew her father hadn't been wild about hiring Li in the first place- he'd only caved because her mother had agreed that it would be good for her to have someone to talk to. And though he had come to grudgingly accept the fact that she wasn't going to get tired of him like he'd probably hoped she would, she didn't exactly want to give him an excuse to chase him away.
She'd only been lying a little when she'd told Li her father wouldn't fire him.
Over a small misunderstanding like before? No. Her father was a lot of things, but he wasn't typically unreasonable. But if he thought Li was becoming a bad influence on her behavior... then he just might.
She didn't want that.
But she didn't want to give in on the issue either.
"But I barely even leave the manor anyways." Toph said. "It's not like anyone will know."
"We're just thinking about what's best for you, dear." Her mother said, laying a hand over that of her own. As always, her touch was feather light, and she was seized by the sudden urge to rip her own out from under it.
She didn't. But she thought about it.
"I thought you said you were okay with us being friends." Toph said instead.
"And we are." Her mother was quick to assure her. "We just want to make sure you understand... well, certain things."
"Certain things." Toph repeated. "Like what?"
"You must never forget your station." Her father answered. "It is our duty as nobles to stand above the common folk."
Toph pursed her lips, her brows knitting together. She never got that part- why was she supposed to be better than other people just for being born? It's not like how it is with earthbending. With earthbending, she knows she's good- that she's better than a lot of other people, but it's not because she was born that way. She worked hard to get there- it wasn't just given to her. But she hadn't put any effort into becoming a noble. She just was.
"But Li is my friend." Toph insisted again, even though she knew it wasn't going to make a difference. "My only friend."
If her parents noticed the subtle thread of venom laced into her tone, they didn't react. At all. Even their heartbeats remained steady, unchanging. She wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"And that's fine." Her mother said again, stroking her hair as if she were some kind of doll. "But your tenth birthday is less than two months away, and before you know it, you'll blossom into a young woman. You need to understand that there will be things you can no longer do after you reach that point. We wouldn't want anyone to... misinterpret things."
Sometimes it was easy to bite her tongue and play along. But not today.
Because today, all she could hear was the fact that her parents were already planning on changing the terms of their agreement once she got old enough. Once they started getting serious about her future prospects- something which she was unlikely to have any say in. Her blood boiled, disgusted at the idea. She'd told her mother once that she wasn't interested in getting married, but she'd only laughed and said that would change with time.
Toph sincerely doubted that.
"Nobody's going to misinterpret anything." Toph said firmly.
"Perhaps not now." Poppy said gently. "But when you are older..."
Toph grit her teeth, drowning out the rest of her parents words. She didn't want to hear it. She didn't want to hear them plan out a future where she didn't even have a say.
Her parents loved her, yes- but they never saw her.
She wished they would.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Li asked later, on the way back.
Li just hummed, before awkwardly reaching out, giving her shoulder a firm squeeze. It was the first time he'd ever touched her, and he already did it better than her parents.
"Parents suck, huh?" He asked.
Toph scoffed. Coming from Li, that was an understatement.
"Yeah," she agreed, "-they kind of do."
Scruffy was being awfully quiet tonight.
Granted, Scruffy was always quiet. He moved like he didn't want people to know he was there, which after what she had learned about his father made way too much sense.
But even though his footfalls were silent- seriously, the guy never so much as stepped on a branch or crunched a leaf- it didn't mean she couldn't hear him. He could just be out of range of her hearing, she reasoned. Li was half-blind himself, so he would have known about that particular advantage. Heck, it wasn't even the first time he'd tried that particular tactic.
No- what really got her was the fact that she couldn't sense him either. At first she thought he might have been waiting to ambush her in the forest- an aggressive strategy that definitely seemed like him, but she hadn't picked up on a single sign of him since entering.
She scrunched up her nose in displeasure. He couldn't have just forgotten- could he? He'd promised. And Li didn't exactly seem like the type to break his promises.
He hadn't even been hiding in that stupid tree of his. It wasn't even a good hiding place- it was too short and squat for him to avoid being picked up by her earth sense. If it were taller, maybe, he could-
Oh. Oh snap.
Scruffy was in the trees.
Toph nearly squealed in delight- nearly. Clearly, Li was even better than she gave him credit for. For all of her lighthearted mocking of his efforts to catch her, not only had he proven himself to be an actual challenge, but he was also clearly certifiably insane.
Look, she didn't claim to know what the world was like for sighted people. But one thing she did know was that they didn't like it when it was too dark.
(Or too bright, for that matter. Seriously, would it kill them to make up their minds?)
Anyways, point was, she knew that nights were dark. Darkness made it hard to see. Not being able to see made people less likely to take risks, which was pretty much what jumping from tree branch to tree branch even in the daytime sounded like. Sprinkle on the fact that Scruffy was nearly half-blind and didn't have the distinct advantage of having an earth sense like she did, and you had what sounded like a recipe for disaster.
So of course Li hadn't thought twice about it.
All this just because he didn't want to potentially eat his own words? That was dedication. It wouldn't work, but still- she had to appreciate the effort.
Straining her ears, she listened out for any out of place sounds. She couldn't hear Li, but she did pick up on signs of him- the screech of a disturbed cat-owl, a pine cone falling to the ground from up high. He was definitely up there.
She'd let him think she hadn't figured him out for a little while longer- and then she'd strike. She didn't want Scruffy to end the night feeling too bad for himself, after all.
She made her way through the forest with practiced ease, keeping her ears strained for any further tells that Li was near. He didn't give her much to work with, to his credit. She waited until she picked up on one- the subtle, but nevertheless telling sound of a tree branch creaking, like Li had tried to move to one that couldn't quite hold his weight the way he thought it would, and was forced to move again in a hurry.
She grinned, pivoted on her heel, and slammed a foot down. The earth shook underneath her, violently shaking the trees closet to her. She picked out a very much not-whispered swear over the sound of rumbling earth, followed promptly by the loud creak of another tree branch, Li presumably having caught himself before he could crash headfirst into the ground.
Then she heard the sound of something snap, followed shortly by a yell.
For a brief moment, she let panic get the better of her. Then Li came back into the range of her earth sense, having caught a far more stable branch on the way down. Allowing herself a sigh of pure relief, Toph's shoulders slumped, angling her head so that she was looking roughly in Li's direction.
"That wasn't a good idea."
"No it wasn't." Li remarked from the tree, having hauled himself up so that he was perching properly on the branch. "How did you even know where I was?"
"Good ears." Toph grinned. "Want to come down?"
"That depends." Li said. "You make any more pit traps?"
"Hey, earthbender's honor." Toph said, holding up her hands. "I promise you there are no pit traps down here."
"Are you planning on making any pit traps?" Li asked, more suspiciously this time.
Toph clicked her tongue. "Darn. Just ruin all my plans, why don't you?"
She wasn't actually planning on making any pit traps. But it was fun to mess with him.
"That's what I do. Ruin plans." Li remarked, making his way down from the tree by jumping from branch to branch. Toph was positive this was all marvelously unsafe. "And is earthbender's honor an actual thing, or did you just make that up?"
"Eh," Toph shrugged, "-if it is, I don't think I'm advanced enough to learn it."
Li snorted, finally setting foot back on the forest floor. He managed to keep his steps quiet even when jumping down from a high place. Frankly, Toph was impressed.
"Well, I've never heard of it." Li said. "Then again, where I'm from, earthbenders aren't exactly painted in the most flattering colors."
There was a pause. Then a swear. Then a loud groan from Li as he slapped his palm over his face- all while his heartbeat sped up like crazy.
Toph, for her part, simply arched a brow. "I'm guessing you didn't mean to say that."
"No." Li admitted. "I definitely did not."
She let the silence stretch on for another few moments, feeling Scruffy's heartbeat speed up all the while. Once she decided that it was beating way too fast for his own good, she folded her arms in front of her chest, cocking her head like she was studying him.
"So," Toph began, trying to keep her voice calm and level, "-where are you from, Li?"
Li groaned, but at least his heartbeat calmed down a bit. "Are you really going to make me say it?"
Toph just shrugged. "You don't have to. Like I said, I don't really care."
The silence stretched on, punctuated only by the screech of a cat-owl in the distance. Finally, Li sighed, shifting slightly on his feet like he was preparing to make a break for it.
"I'm from the Fire Nation." Li said. "Happy?"
"Yep." Toph nodded, before beaming. "Huh. Guess Yang was right."
Li bristled, and she swore the temperature around them spiked. "I'm not a spy!"
"Whoa, easy there Scruffy." Toph said, holding up her hands. "Nobody said you were. All I was saying was that he was right about you being Fire Nation."
Li relaxed, the temperature around them dropping back down as he did so. The edge of Toph's lips twitched upwards- she had been speculating for awhile now that he might be a firebender, and from the look of it, she'd say she was right.
It made sense. She knew he was lying about being a bender, and that there were only two elements that would have prompted him to lie. There was no shame in being an earth or a waterbender- which only left fire and air. And since all the Air Nomads were dead, that meant Li could only be a firebender.
And a firebender in the Earth Kingdom had damn good reasons to lie about being one.
The only thing that reminded that contested that theory was the way he sometimes seemed almost afraid of fire. The way his heart rate always seemed to speed up whenever he did so much as light a candle. How his hands shook the one time they passed by the kitchen, the scent of a slow roasting pig-chicken strong in the air.
"Look," Li finally said, his voice barely above a whisper, "-I can- I can leave if you want."
Toph blinked. Then blinked again. Because that made no sense to her.
"What?" She asked. "Why would I want you to leave? You're my friend."
Li said nothing for a moment, simply opening and closing his mouth. "...because I'm Fire Nation? You know, part of the bad guys?"
"You just said you weren't a spy." Toph pointed out. "Besides, I've actually kind of guessed for awhile now that you were probably Fire Nation."
Actually, she'd thought he was from the colonies, not from the Fire Nation itself, but he didn't need to know that. Guess her running theory of Li being the mixed blood son of a Fire Nation noble forced to marry an Earth Kingdom noble didn't exactly hold much water now. Too bad- it had been a pretty good theory.
"Wha- I thought you said you didn't know anything!" Li yelled, managing a volume so loud that she was almost grateful they were so deep in the forest. "You-!"
"Calm down." Toph rolled her eyes. "I meant what I said. I didn't know anything. But that doesn't mean that I didn't make a few guesses. And relax, Scruffy. It's not like you being Fire Nation changes my view of you."
Li swallowed, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. "It would if you knew who I really was."
Toph fought the urge to groan. He'd said something like that yesterday too. She thought he was over this already, but maybe she'd been a little too optimistic. Scruffy was clearly holding on to some pretty powerful feelings of guilt- she got the feeling that lying wasn't exactly something he was all that comfortable with or used to doing. She couldn't exactly relate- she lied all the time to her parents, and she never felt guilty about it, nor did she see anything wrong with that.
"I promise you," Toph said, "-you could be even be a firebender, and it wouldn't change the fact that we're friends."
Li choked, just like she thought he would. Seriously, how had he not managed to blow his cover yet? He was terrible at lying!
"I- um," Li began, shifting awkwardly on his feet, "-about that-"
"Let me guess." Toph said. "You're a firebender."
Li winced. "...kind of?"
"Kind of?" Toph asked. "How can you kind of be a firebender?"
"I can't," Li began, and she knew he wasn't looking at her, "-I can't firebend anymore."
Toph arched a brow. There was definitely a story there, but she got the distinct feeling it wasn't one that Li wanted to tell- not yet, at least. Something in her stomach curled as she recalled what he had told her yesterday- that his father had challenged him to a fight, and that Li had refused. He hadn't elaborated on what happened after that, but from the way he'd touched the injured left side of his face, it had been pretty obvious that his father had been the one to mess up his face so bad.
Her stomach sank as she finally put two and two together, and realized what that terrible thing was.
A burn. Li's injury was a burn.
Li's injury was a burn, and that was why he couldn't firebend anymore. His father had branded him with his own element, had scarred him with it, and now he was... he was what, afraid? Terrified? Terrified of what by all rights should be his to control. She didn't understand how that was even possible, being afraid of your own element- she was so in tune with the earth, that the thought of suddenly being horrified of it was simply too counterintuitive for her to picture.
Then again, she guessed having part of your faced melted off by your own father would do it.
"I'm sorry." She finally said, her voice almost uncharacteristically quiet.
Li still didn't look up. "It's not your fault."
Well now things were just awkward, Toph thought to herself. She didn't like this at all. She wished the fun atmosphere from before would come back. That she could just drive it into Li's thick skull that she cared about him, and what secrets he chose to keep from her ultimately didn't matter.
She was Toph Beifong, after all. And Toph Beifong was an excellent judge of character.
Making a slight huff, Toph shifted her feet slightly. Li let out a slight cry of alarm as a wave of earth scooped him up, planting him right in front of her.
"Toph, what are you-?" He began.
She cut him off, reaching out and grabbing his hand. He flinched, but didn't move to stop her as she took his hand and cupped it around her wrist.
"Well, would you look at that, Scruffy?" Toph asked, cracking a grin. "It looks like you caught me."
Li opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Then slowly, he let his fingers curl around her wrist, holding it tight. She imagined that he was smiling, just a faint upward curl of his lips, even if she couldn't see it.
"Yeah," he said slowly, almost in wonder, "-looks like I did."
"Guess you earned the right to know all my secrets, then." Toph remarked.
Li looked up at her, then swallowed. "Is that- is that really okay? I mean, I'm still-"
"Scruffy," Toph cut him off, "-I let you win on purpose. What do you think?"
"Good point." Li admitted. "It's just a lot to take in."
"I mean, I told you all this stuff yesterday, too." Toph pointed out.
"Well, yeah, but-" Li stopped himself before he could finish with anything that could make her angry. Wise choice. "I'm not good at this."
"At what?" Toph asked.
"This!" Li said, releasing her wrist just so he could throw up his hands. He could be so dramatic sometimes. Maybe it was a Fire Nation thing. "Being friends! I have no idea what I'm doing!"
"Well good news, Scruffy, because neither do I." Toph told him. "You're my first friend too, remember?"
"Oh." Li paused. "Right. You're just- you're better at this than I am."
"It's the confidence." Toph said, resisting the urge to give him a friendly punch in arm. It'd probably just spook him. "You should try it sometime."
"Sounds hard." Li remarked, and it took her a second to realize that he was joking.
"Don't worry." Toph promised. "You'll get there someday. I believe in you."
It must have been the right thing to say, because something in Li eased. His heartbeat, which was still somewhat frantic, finally started to calm down, like he actually believed that she wasn't about to turn him into the town guard for being a firebender, or for being Fire Nation, or whatever stupid thing he was worried about.
She wasn't stupid, of course. She knew full well her country was at war with his country, much as her parents tried to shield her from the news. But Li clearly wasn't some kind of evil Fire Nation spy- seriously, what spy worth their salt would be this bad at lying? He wasn't even evil- his first instinct upon having the truth be revealed was to run, not fight.
Besides, the Fire Nation had hurt Li too- and then they'd thrown him out. Li wasn't an enemy. He was just a desperate kid, trying to survive. He was lying to protect himself, not hurt anyone.
"Do you really mean that?" Li asked.
"Sure do, Scruffy." Toph beamed, planting her hands on her hips. "I wouldn't just pick anyone as my first friend."
Li scoffed, the sound so faint it was nearly lost in the noises of the forest. "Right. Just incompetent fruit thieves."
"Exactly." Toph said, puffing out her chest. "As you can tell, I have high standards."
That pulled another laugh from Li, louder and stronger this time. Apprehension quickly took it's place, the firebender shifting awkwardly on his feet. "So... you're really okay? With me being Fire Nation, I mean?"
"Hey, I don't lie about what really matters." Toph said firmly. "If I had a problem with you being Fire Nation, you'd be buried up to your neck in dirt by now."
Li seemed to consider this. "That... that's fair."
"You're darn right it is." Toph said. "Now are we going to stand around in the forest all night talking about our feelings, or are we going to do anything interesting?"
"Interesting." Li repeated. "What exactly would you consider interesting?"
Toph's smile just grew. "I promised you my secrets, didn't I?"
"That's a distinct possibility." Li said.
"Great!" Toph said. "Follow me!"
She turned on her heel, not stopping to wait for him to catch up. His legs were almost annoyingly long for a kid who was barely four years older than her, so it wasn't like it would take him long anyways. Sure enough, he was behind her in seconds, his annoyingly silent footsteps barely even audible against the forest floor.
"So... where exactly are we going?" Li asked, after a few moments of only slightly awkward silence.
Toph just continued to grin. "You'll see."
Li made a noise, like he was trying to decide if that was a blind joke or not. It was both, but she wasn't going to tell him that.
Their destination wasn't far. She could feel Li's confusion grow as they made it to what probably just looked like a big rock to him. He couldn't sense the labyrinth of tunnels that stretched beyond and underneath it, leading into the mountains that surrounded Gaoling. They could take her nearly anywhere she wanted to go- though she rarely strayed far. She didn't want to take the risk of not showing back up before dawn. The thought of her parents sending out search parties for her wasn't exactly pleasant.
Also they would almost definitely fire Li then, nevermind the fact that he would have been asleep. Her safety was the one thing her father could be irrational about.
Toph got into her stance, stomping her left foot, carving an entrance into the rock wall. She made it a little bigger this time, so that Li wouldn't have to stoop over until they came out into the practice arena that she'd carved out for herself. She took a few steps inside, before she realized that he wasn't following.
With a slight frown, she turned back in his direction. "There a problem, Scruffy?"
"You know I won't be able to see shit in there, right?" Li asked.
Toph opened her mouth. Closed it. Then opened it again.
"Shit." She repeated, echoing the boy's earlier swear just as soon as she committed it to memory. She was going to get some use out of that. "You're right."
She couldn't say which of them ended up breaking the silence first- but she guessed it really didn't matter. Hearing the way Li's unexpected bark of laughter mixed with hers was the only thing that was actually important.
"Sorry, Scruffy." Toph said, once their laughter had died down somewhat. "Guess I forgot you aren't completely blind."
"From you?" Li said. "That's a compliment."
Toph beamed. Because if Scruffy could understand that, then it meant he understood her even better than she'd first thought. It meant that when he looked at her, he didn't see her blindness as a weakness- but rather that he'd come to view it as a strength.
That, and also that he was a lot more perceptive than literally anyone else she had ever met. She wasn't sure how much he'd figured out, but the fact that he'd been able to figure out anything at all was pretty telling. She chalked it up to the fact that he was half-blind- there was something of a mutual understanding there.
She also didn't question why he couldn't just light his own way. She hadn't forgotten how quiet his voice had gone when he'd admitted that he couldn't firebend anymore.
"You bet it is." She said. "And you'd better take it to heart, because the greatest earthbender in the world doesn't compliment just anyone."
"The greatest earthbender in the world, huh?" Li asked, folding his arms in front of him and tilting his head. "Is that what you've been hiding?"
"What, you don't believe me?" Toph asked.
"I never said that." Li said quickly.
"Good." Toph nodded. "Because as soon as we work out a light source for you, you're going to become my new sparring buddy."