Chapter 1: lying is just chronic acting
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.
Chapter 2: acting is just lying as a lifestyle choice
"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."
And here we are, Toph's POV! Fortunately there were no massive rewrites needed this time, always a plus. I hope everyone enjoys the chapter! Coming up next, Toph and Zuko become sparring buddies, go watch a Rumble, and try to overcome certain bending-related fears.
Love these kids... they're doing alright.
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."