"So, did you get the goods?"
"They're lanterns, not illicit goods." Zuko told Toph. "And yes, I got them."
He lifted the pair of lanterns as if to demonstrate, even though he knew Toph couldn't see them. It hadn't even been that hard to get them- the other servants had been more than happy to lend him a pair when he asked about it. He got the sense that they were just grateful that he had asked them for something, information that he still wasn't sure what to do with.
If he didn't know any better, it was almost like they cared about him or something.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Toph beamed. "Let's go!"
The earthen wall crumbled at Toph's command, though he had to duck his head a bit to get through. He got the feeling that she was used to making holes that fit her size, rather than his. Hopefully she'd remember the fact that he was taller than her later.
"So," Zuko said after a few minutes of only slightly awkward silence, "-where exactly are you taking me?"
"Where I took you yesterday, duh." Toph said.
"Yeah, but where is that, exactly?" Zuko asked. "It just looked like a big rock to me."
Toph just grinned. "Well that's where you'd be wrong."
Zuko waited for her to elaborate, but she didn't. Right. Guess he was in for something of a surprise, then.
After having spent the past few months trying to catch her, it was weird to be following behind Toph so closely. The events of the previous evening were still vivid in his mind, coupled as they were with a sense of disbelief that they actually had happened. It felt like something out of a dream- you know, if he had nice dreams.
Toph knew he was Fire Nation. She knew he was a firebender. And she was... completely okay with that? It didn't make any sense to him. Sure, he was grateful for it, but that didn't mean he understood it.
Maybe it was the isolation. Maybe she just didn't understand how bad the war actually was, how bad firebenders actually were. Or at least, how bad the rest of the Earth Kingdom thought they were- but given what he'd seen, he couldn't even refute their claims. He wanted to believe in his own people, believe that they weren't the monsters the people here described them as, but sometimes it was hard.
Sometimes it was downright impossible.
Well, whatever Toph's reasons for trusting him were, he'd take it. He still felt a little guilty about lying to her- sure, she knew he was Fire Nation now, but there was a pretty big leap between being from an enemy nation and being the prince of said nation, banished or not.
He was just glad she still wanted to be friends with him.
Oh, and that he wouldn't have to try and find another job. And another place to live. And possibly evade capture by Earth Kingdom soldiers sent after him while he was at it. That too. But the friendship thing felt more important.
"Okay, Scruffy, we're here."
Zuko looked up, realizing abruptly that they were. That felt a lot faster than he remembered. Toph must have been deliberately misleading him all this time, which honestly, didn't surprise him, not when she'd spent the past few months toying with him however she could. It should have been frustrating, or at the very least annoying, but honestly?
He was actually sort of starting to miss it. It had been... fun?
Huh. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had fun.
"It still just looks like a big rock to me." Zuko observed.
Toph just snorted, using earthbending to create a pathway into the rock itself. He squinted, trying to see how far down it went, but it was too dark for him to properly make out. Setting down the lanterns, he reached into his pocket, pulling out the spark rocks he'd brought with him. Stooping down, he opened the hatch on one of the lanterns, pausing to take a deep breath.
He was okay. He wasn't even firebending. He was fine.
The spark rocks struck true the first time. He hastily closed the hatch, finally exhaling as he did so. The tiny flame flickered in response, but didn't grow- or shrink, for that matter. He'd hate to have to relight it, especially since he was just going to have to light the other one when they got to wherever it was Toph was leading him anyways.
He tucked away the spark rocks, picking up both lanterns as he stood. He purposefully avoided looking Toph in the eyes, the knot in his stomach tied tight. His fear of fire wasn't exactly uncommon knowledge, but this was the first time he'd had to deal with someone who not only knew about it, but also knew that he was a firebender.
Or well, that he was supposed to be a firebender. He couldn't exactly call himself much of one now, could he?
He just- he didn't want Toph to think he was pathetic. Which, yeah, he kind of was- but that didn't mean he wanted people to view him that way. And Toph was so in tune with her own element, so for him to be afraid of what was supposed to be his...
"You're doing that not breathing thing again."
Toph's voice snapped him out of his thoughts, and he suddenly realized she was right. He carefully exhaled, before slowly drawing in another breath, and just as slowly letting it out. He felt a little better, if only just.
"You know, if it's that bad, I could just light them." Toph suggested.
"Yeah, I don't think that's a good idea." Zuko said.
Toph just grinned, unbothered. "Geez, Scruffy. It's like you think I'm blind or something."
Zuko just snorted, a strange sense of peace accompanying the sound. He was safe here. Even if the fire went out of control, Toph could just smother it with earth. He'd be fine.
Maybe if he kept telling himself that, he'd actually start believing it.
"Are we just going to stand around a big rock all night, or are you going to show me this... place of yours?" Zuko asked.
"Place." Toph echoed, her brows shooting up.
"I don't know what it is!" Zuko defended himself. "You haven't told me anything!"
"Can't spoil the surprise." Toph said. "C'mon."
Thankfully Toph remembered to make the tunnel to his height this time. He trailed behind the earthbender, keeping the lit lantern at shoulder level. The tiny flame danced on the tunnel walls, casting shadows, but he wasn't afraid of it now that it was contained. He hadn't been afraid of it when he'd lit the lantern either, not really- just... apprehensive. Nervous.
But a nervous firebender was a dangerous one. He knew that.
But the flame itself was too small for him to be afraid of. At least, today it was. Tomorrow?
He could never be sure about tomorrow.
He almost didn't notice when Toph came to an abrupt halt, nearly slamming right into her. It was only years of training that let him balance perfectly on just the one foot, before he carefully avoiding giving into his own momentum and toppling into the earthbender. Regaining his footing, he raised the lit lantern, casting its glow over the wide cavern that stretched before them.
He squinted. It almost looked like... an arena? It was hard to tell when it was so dark. His lantern's tiny flame barely illuminated anything.
Turning on her heel, Toph beamed, her milky eyes gleaming oddly under the lantern's light. Spreading out her arms as if she was showing the place off, she tilted her chin confidently upwards.
"Well?" She asked. "What do you think?"
"I think," Zuko said, still straining to see, "-I'm going to need more lanterns."
Toph, unhelpfully, just laughed.
More lanterns did, in fact, help.
Toph made them with earthbending. All he had to do was borrow (steal) the candles to put in them. He considered asking to borrow a few more lanterns, but no matter how eager the Beifong servants were to help him out, asking for more than two lanterns would just seem... weird.
Maybe not firebender weird. But still weird.
He still didn't let Toph light any of them. She only pretended to be offended.
She didn't pretend that she wasn't watching him the entire time. He pretended not to notice, trying to keep himself calm and level as he used the spark rocks to light each candle. He felt the flames begging to dance at his call, but he ignored it.
Now that he could see it properly, Toph's arena- and it was an arena- was actually pretty impressive. The cavern itself was natural, Toph had explained- she'd just improved upon it. There was a raised platform in the center of the cavern where the ground had been made perfectly level and smooth, enough so that when he ran a hand over it, it didn't get so much as a scratch, not even the smallest piece of earth jutting out of place. It was an impressive feat of earthbending, even more so for someone who couldn't see at all.
"I can see, actually," Toph told him as she erected the last pillar, using earthbending to fix the final lantern in place, "-just not the same way you do."
Zuko arched his single brow at her, warily watching the flame that flickered every time she moved the stone lantern. "How does that work?"
"With earthbending, mostly." Toph replied. "I use the vibrations of the earth."
Zuko frowned, folding his arms in front of him. "What, like a wolf-bat?"
"Try badgermole." Toph said. "They're the ones who taught me, actually."
Zuko's good eye widened, snapping back to that first awkward conversation with Toph, back when he had just been hired. She'd mentioned something about having seen a badgermole back then, but honestly, he'd kind of forgotten about it until now.
"That... explains a lot, actually." Zuko finally said. "I was wondering how you got so good when your teacher's full of shit."
Toph grinned that wide, toothy grin he was becoming so familiar with. "Yeah, he is full of shit."
"You, uh," Zuko winced, realizing that maybe he should watch his mouth around the nine year old girl, "-you probably shouldn't say that in front of your parents."
"What, shit?" Toph snorted. "Give me some credit, Scruffy, I'm not an idiot. I'm pretty sure my parents would have my mouth washed out with soap if they caught me swearing."
Yeah, he could kind of picture that.
"I'm just annoyed that you've known swear words this whole time." Toph said, almost accusingly. "You been holding out on me?"
Zuko just shrugged. He didn't know she wanted to learn them, but in hindsight, he probably should have. "I was on a ship for awhile. I picked a few things up."
He didn't mention that he'd spent most of his time on said ship delirious and in pain. He also didn't mention the fact that looking back on it, he was pretty sure that there hadn't been a single reputable sailor in the entire bunch. No wonder they swore so much.
It kind of figured that his father would have only been willing to spare the worst of the worst for him, even if it had been for the sake of kicking him out of the country. Honestly, part of him was just surprised that none of the sailors had tried to throw him overboard. He guessed his father just had that much faith that he'd get himself killed on his own, in a way that couldn't be linked back to him.
For once, he was almost glad to let him down.
"So," Zuko said, quickly changing the topic, "-badgermoles? How did that happen?"
Toph shrugged. "Ran away when I was six. Got adopted by badgermoles. You know how it goes."
"I most definitely do not." Zuko said, because he absolutely didn't.
"Anyways, that's how I learned earthbending." Toph said. "They taught me how to see the world through my feet, plus a lot of other things that have come in handy."
Zuko arched his brow. She'd left a lot out, but at least one thing was starting to make sense to him. "I'm guessing that's why you hate having your feet washed."
"Nice to know you catch on quick." Toph grinned, falling into an earthbending stance. "Now let's move on from the explanation to the demonstration."
Zuko just stared at her. What did she mean by-?
"Demon- wait, you were serious about that?" Zuko asked, his voice only slightly cracking as he said that. "I thought you were only joking about us being sparring partners."
"What, think you can't take me?" Toph asked, smirking. "Don't worry, Scruffy, I'll go easy on you."
"That's not what I-!" Zuko bristled, glowering at the earthbender, unsure if he was more offended by the implication that she didn't even consider him a challenge, or by the fact that she knew he was useless at firebending but was still challenging him to a match anyways. "I can't even bend!"
"You don't need to be able to bend." Toph insisted. "You have your swords, don't you? Besides, if I wanted to beat up the weak, I could just go kick Yang's butt."
Zuko snapped his mouth shut. He'd only ever taken up the art of the dual dao in order to help compensate for his weak firebending- he'd never thought about using them to fight a bender, even in a controlled setting. Then again, right now he couldn't bend. His swords were all he had.
And he was a banished Fire Nation prince in a kingdom of earthbenders...
...maybe learning how to defend himself from them wasn't such a bad idea.
"Okay," he finally said, drawing his swords with what was frankly an unnecessary amount of flair, "-but I'll have you know, I'm considered pretty good."
Toph's smirk only grew.
Toph kicked his ass.
"So," Toph said, leaning over his fallen form, making no move to help him up, "-ready to go again?"
Never give up without a fight, the knife his uncle had given him read.
"You know it."
Toph kicked his ass.
"Who taught you how to swordfight anyways?" Toph asked, offering him no help as he stumbled back onto his feet. "I didn't think that was a thing benders even learned."
"From a master named Piandao." Zuko replied, rubbing his shoulder where one of Toph's rock strikes had hit it square on, knocking his sword from his grip. "He's considered to be one of the greatest swordsmen in the world."
"Huh," Toph said, "-I bet I could kick his butt."
Zuko huffed, but didn't dispute it. The legendary swordsman who had defeated one hundred Fire Nation soldiers and earned his right to desert from the Fire Nation army being defeated by a nine year old blind girl.
Piandao would think it was hilarious.
"You know," Toph observed, crouching over where he lay on the ground, "-I kind of thought you'd be more upset at having your butt kicked by a little girl."
"You should meet my sister." Zuko scoffed, before quickly thinking better of that. "Actually, no. That's a bad idea. Don't meet my sister."
He couldn't even imagine what a fight between Toph and Azula would be like. He wasn't sure he even wanted to. It would probably involve entirely too much fire.
"Well shoot, Scruffy." Toph said. "There goes my weekend plans."
Zuko snorted, recognizing it as the joke it was. "My sister's not exactly known for her hospitality. Or the rest of my family, really. Well, except for my uncle. He'd probably welcome you with a hot cup of ginseng tea."
"Sounds like a nice guy." Toph observed.
"Yeah," Zuko smiled, "-he is."
Agni, he missed his uncle. He hoped he was doing alright. He knew how badly Lu Ten's death had affected him, so he hoped... he hoped he didn't think that he was dead too. He didn't want to put his uncle through that kind of pain again.
...he also probably shouldn't mention the fact that his uncle was the Dragon of the West.
"So," Toph asked, peering down at him, "-round four?"
"You know what?" Zuko stared up at the tiny earthbender, momentarily seeing two of her before he blinked the double image away. "I think I'm good for tonight."
Never give up without a fight, the knife his uncle gave him read. It said nothing, however, about putting that fight on hold.
"Don't worry, Scruffy. You'll beat me one day." Toph said, holding out a hand to help him up.
He took it without hesitation. "You don't actually mean that, do you?"
"Nope!" Toph chirped, hauling him to his feet. Her grip was firm, but steadying. "You could become the greatest firebender in the world, and I'd still kick your butt."
Zuko huffed, letting go of her hand to brush dirt off the back of his robe. He was glad he'd changed into his stolen brown robes, rather than the nicer ones Toph's mother had made for him. It would be hard to explain how he'd managed to get them so dirty.
"I'd settle for just being able to firebend at all."
Toph's smile slipped from her face. "Is it really that bad?"
"It's bad." Zuko replied truthfully. "I haven't been able to make fire at all since..."
"He burned you, didn't he?" Toph asked, angling her head so that her eyes were at least looking in the direction of his face. "Your father, I mean."
"Yeah." Zuko said, one hand straying to his burn. There was no sense in hiding it, not when it was obvious to everyone else. People talked, after all.
"I can produce a little heat now," he began, "-but every time I try and make a flame, I keep thinking about when it happened."
It had been awhile, he privately thought, since he'd actually really tried.
Dropping his hand from his face, Zuko frowned. "I guess I must sound pretty pathetic."
"Are you kidding me?" Toph asked. "From what I can tell, you survived someone melting off part of your face. There's nothing pathetic about that. I'm kind of surprised you aren't more messed up."
Zuko blinked. That hadn't been the response he'd been expecting. But then if there was one thing Toph had proven, it was that she was all about the unexpected.
"You might think twice about that if you could actually see it." Zuko said.
"I wasn't talking about your face." Toph said. "I was talking about you."
Zuko opened his mouth to say that his face was part of him, only to close it. Toph was blind, and she saw the world in a different way than he did. He thought he understood that, being almost half-blind himself now, but he was starting to suspect he'd only just barely scratched the surface of what that actually meant.
"I guess I never really thought of it that way." He admitted.
"Well you should," Toph said firmly, "-since it's true."
Zuko managed a small smile, even if he wasn't quite ready to take Toph's words to heart. He knew how badly the Agni Kai had broken him, but it was nice thinking that maybe it hadn't been quite as bad as he thought.
Stooping down to pick up his swords, he sheathed them behind his back. "We should probably head back."
"Don't forget your light." Toph said.
Zuko blinked, glancing towards where Toph was pointing. It was one of the two lanterns he'd brought with him originally, the candle inside having melted down nearly halfway. He hadn't even realized that they'd been in here for so long- it was surprisingly easy for him to lose track of time when the sun wasn't out.
Also he'd probably need more candles if they were going to do this again.
"We can leave it here." Zuko said. "All I have to do is follow you back, right?"
Toph just arched a brow, doubt radiating off her small figure in a way that made him bristle. But then she shrugged, seemingly indifferent. "Suit yourself. You gonna blow 'em out?"
Zuko frowned, narrowing his eyes at the tiny earthbender. What did she think he was going to do, trip and fall on his face? He hadn't been that clumsy in years.
He huffed, deciding not to dignify it with a response. Instead he made his way to nearest lantern, leaning down to blow the flame out. He could snuff the flame out with his bending, could feel each tiny fire under his skin, still begging for him to take control, but he just couldn't take that first step. He didn't want to risk losing control once he had it.
He blew the candles out.
Toph said nothing.
On the way out, he tripped and fell flat on his face.
Toph had a lot to say about that.
"That's a... that's sure a lot of candles, kid."
Zuko looked almost sheepishly up at Yun, trying to pretend like he wasn't currently trying to carry several dozen candles at once- and also maybe kind of sort of failing at it. At least he'd obtained them legally this time, by purchasing them like a regular human being who had money. He'd even bought some to replace the one's he'd stolen from the guard's stock the previous night.
It was the first time he'd visited the town of Gaoling itself since being hired by the Beifongs, and he'd gone there to buy candles. Thankfully he hadn't gotten too many odd looks while in the marketplace, so he'd been hoping that his good luck would continue on the way back. The servant's quarters were usually deserted around this time of day.
Emphasis on usually.
"I... like to do a lot of night reading?" Zuko offered.
Yun arched a brow, looking at him, then back down to the candles, and then back up at him again. "Yeah? What do you like to read?"
"Um," Zuko shifted awkwardly on his feet, just wanting this conversation to end, "-theater scrolls?"
"Huh," was all Yun said before shrugging. He had no idea if that meant he'd accepted what he'd said was true, or if he had just decided that he didn't actually care enough to pursue his weird candle hoarding any further. "You uh, want a hand with those?"
"Yes," Zuko said quickly, and then, after a moment of thought, he added, "-please."
He met the badgermoles. They were a lot bigger than he thought they would be.
And no, Toph did not warn him. At all.
He'd get back at her for that someday.
Not today, though. Today was just Toph kicking his ass all over again, only this time, her masters were watching. Somehow getting beat up by a blind nine year old girl was a lot more embarrassing when there were a pair of giant badgermoles around to see it happen- even if they couldn't actually see.
(When he blew out the candles, it felt like they were judging him.)
It didn't take him long to learn that Toph wasn't kidding about being a great earthbender. It was the greatest in the world part he wasn't sure about just yet. She was only nine, after all, and the only earthbenders she ever got the chance to interact with were the household guards and Master Yu, and he wouldn't exactly call any of them great.
He also made the mistake of saying that out loud.
Toph knocked him flat in three seconds, and he was forced to reconsider.
He blew out the candles again.
Toph still didn't say anything.
"How do you feel about going on a field trip, Scruffy?" Toph asked.
"That depends." Zuko said, his brow shooting up into what were finally starting to grow into bangs, if only just barely. "What kind of field trip?"
"The best kind." Toph grinned in a way that could be best described as mischievous. "The kind where we watch a bunch of dudes beat each other up."
Zuko tilted his head, mulling it over. He had to admit... that did sound like a pretty good field trip. So long as they weren't beating each other up with fire, that was.
If someone told him a year ago that he'd be accompanying an Earth Kingdom heiress whose family he worked for to an underground earthbending tournament, he would have laughed in their faces. Now he just shrugged and went on with his life- it had been pretty nuts these past few months. This might as well happen, he figured.
"Earth Rumble Four?" Zuko asked, staring incredulously at the mouth of the cave that held the aforementioned event. "There's been three of these?"
The whole place screamed shady to him. It set him on edge, wondering if any of these people would realize that the blind girl in the earthbending practice robes was the Beifong heiress or not- and if so, what they would do about it. But they weren't getting any weird looks, and shockingly enough, there were other kids around their age here, so maybe he was just overthinking things.
Just like a bodyguard would.
Great. He'd settled. He could almost hear Azula laughing at him.
"Turns out people love watching other people get hit in the face with rocks." Toph shrugged. "Who knew?"
Zuko just snorted, pushing the sound of his sister's laughter out of his head. "Like you don't love hitting me in the face with rocks."
"I'll admit," Toph grinned, "-it is pretty satisfying. But I prefer the doing, rather than just watching."
"You're not planning on entering, are you?" Zuko asked, a slight frown crossing his features. Toph was good, but these people were likely professionals. He didn't know if she was good enough to beat people who did this for a living just yet.
"As much as I would love to, I'll be sitting this one out." Toph said. "You see, this is actually my first time coming to one of these. You had a point the other day, about me not having much to compare my own earthbending to. I thought maybe I should change that."
"And yet you still beat me up for it anyways." Zuko observed. "Nice."
"Hey, I've got a reputation to maintain." Toph said. "Now c'mon, let's go get some tickets! I want to see if this Boulder person is really all he's cracked up to be."
The person at the ticket booth had smiled and called them siblings.
Neither of them had refuted it.
Having a little sister that didn't want to kill you was... nice, Zuko thought. Even if Toph did beat him up almost as often as Azula had.
At least she let him fight back.
They made the mistake of sitting in the front row.
The first time a stray rock came their way, he made the executive decision to move towards the back. He did not let Toph protest this decision. He was her bodyguard, and right now he was going to act like it. Greatest earthbender in the world or not, it didn't change the fact that she really did weigh about as much as a wet poodle-monkey. Scooping her up and tossing her over his shoulder was easy.
She was definitely going to get him back later for it. And he would worry about that later.
At least they wouldn't get crushed by rocks.
"I said no."
Zuko grumbled, but nevertheless removed his hand from the hilt of his swords. He scowled down at the arena, where a man in bright red pants and a dark cape stood, waving a flag with the Fire Nation emblem on it. He almost wished he could still firebend, just so he could set his stupid cape on fire.
That was before he started to sing.
"This is ridiculous," Zuko complained, "-the Fire Nation doesn't even have an anthem! And if it did, it wouldn't be that!"
Toph just laughed, oblivious in the way only a blind person could be to his continued glare.
Stupid Earth Rumble. Stupid Fire Nation Man.
"So what's your opinion on The Boulder?"
Toph's grin was answer enough, but she gave him a verbal one anyways. "I bet I could kick his ass."
Zuko snorted, his lips quirking into a grin. "Yeah. I bet you could too."
Now that he had more to compare Toph too, he could tell just how gifted an earthbender she actually was. The way she fought was so different from anyone who had stepped into the arena tonight, but he guessed that was just the result of her having learned directly from the original earthbenders themselves.
He briefly wondered what it would be like to be taught by dragons, like the firebenders of old, but quickly shelved the thought. There were no more dragons left. His Uncle had seen to that long before he was born.
"You're just picturing me beating up Fire Nation Man, aren't you?" Toph asked, cocking a brow.
"It's a strong possibility."
Toph kicked his ass again that night, but with more flair this time. He had to admit, he was impressed- and also maybe a little dizzy.
Toph winced, hastily earthbending him a seat. "You should probably sit down for a bit."
"Good idea." Zuko mumbled, rubbing his head where it had hit the ground. "The bit with the rocks shaped like the earth symbol was a nice touch, though."
"Didn't work though." Toph said, easing him into the impromptu chair. He didn't protest at her touch, admittedly just a bit too out of it for it to even register.
"Too brittle." Zuko recalled. "Easy to break up. The big rock worked better."
"The big rock may have given you a concussion." Toph pointed out.
"Nah, I'm fine." Zuko waved off her concern. "I've had a concussion before. This isn't one, trust me."
Toph just stared at him strangely, like he'd said something weird. "Geez, Scruffy. How bad was your home life?"
He just grunted in response, motioning to the left side of his face.
Zuko hissed, his hands darting away from where he'd been hit yesterday. It hadn't turned out to be a concussion, thankfully- it was just a bad bump. The dizzy spell had cleared up after a few minutes, but Toph had, for once, decided against a round two. Which, fine by him- he wasn't exactly in a hurry for more head trauma.
He knew he shouldn't have touched it, but everyone at the table had been giving him such weird looks, that he'd thought something was wrong. Did he have something in his hair? There shouldn't have been a bruise...
"You okay there, kid?" Yun asked, shooting him a glance. He was pretty sure it was a worried glance, which was still weird. He couldn't wrap his head around the idea that these Earth Kingdom servants actually cared about him- or cared about Li, at least.
Close enough, he guessed.
"Fine." Zuko said, wincing again at how curt his tone was. "Just sore."
"Did you hit your head?" Xia-Su asked, actual concern in her tone.
"Yeah," Zuko mumbled, half wanting to just sink into the earth so this conversation could be over with, "-something like that."
And just like that, the entire table's attention was on him, not just the group that sat closest to him. Maybe he should have just taken his morning meal and run.
"Something like that?" Xia-Su repeated, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. "What actually happened, Li?"
"Nothing!" Zuko sputtered, his good eye wide. "I just-"
"Really?" Yun asked, not even giving him a chance to finish. "Because you don't exactly seem like the type to just fall, kid."
"Was it that Yang fellow again?" Old Lady An asked, almost spitting out the guardsman's name. "I never liked that man. Always thought he was shifty."
"No, it-" Zuko began, but didn't get a chance to finish.
Yun's gaze hardened, going from worry to quiet fury. "He didn't hurt you, did he? I know he's been giving you a hard time ever since Lord Beifong hired you, but if he laid an actual hand on you, I-"
"No!" Zuko blurted out, not realizing that he'd yelled until the kitchen went dead quiet. "No, he didn't hurt me. I just... fell and hit my head. That's all."
As amusing as it would be to see a bunch of angry servants ganging up on Yang, and as much as the man himself probably deserved it, he didn't deserve their defense. Besides, he didn't want to risk getting anyone in trouble. Not for him.
He was glad the kitchen fires had already been put out.
"You can tell us the truth, Li." Xia-Su said, finally seeming to find her voice. She'd gone eerily quiet when Yang's name had been brought up. "We all see the way he talks to you."
Zuko swallowed, a weird feeling bubbling up in his stomach that he couldn't even begin to identify. "I promise, that's not what happened. I really did just fall. Sometimes I still have trouble with distance."
Silence swept over the table then, the servants exchanging glances that he couldn't read. He bit his lip, pretending to be very interested in his rice, hoping they didn't press him any further. He couldn't exactly tell them that he'd gotten his head injury sparring with a nine year old blind earthbender hyped up from Earth Rumble Four. He didn't think they'd believe him, but Toph had trusted him with her secret, and he wasn't about to just blurt it out to escape an awkward situation.
"If you need to see a healer..."
Zuko chanced a look at Xia-Su, before slowly shaking his head. "I'll be fine."
"She didn't mean about your head, boy." Old Lady An said. "She meant your scar."
"Oh." Zuko flushed, ducking his head again. "It's- it's fine. I saw one when it first... when it happened."
It was true. Probably? There had to have been a healer involved at some point in the healing process, however briefly. He was pretty sure he would have gotten an infection otherwise. He wasn't that lucky.
He didn't see the servants exchange a look between them.
"Just keep in mind that the offer's always on the table." Yun finally told him. "You're part of us now, kid, I don't know how it works where you're from, but we look after our own here."
Zuko just nodded, still not looking up. Thankfully, the topic changed after that, but he still finished the rest of his morning meal with his eyes averted. He wondered if he'd ever stop feeling guilty about lying to these people.
He hoped not.
"You should think of a stage name."
Toph glanced up at him, briefly freezing mid-kata before picking it right back up. "Good point. I don't think it would go over well if I introduced myself as Toph Beifong."
Zuko's lips quirked in a grin. "Probably not."
"Got any ideas?" Toph asked.
"I was always terrible at naming things." Zuko admitted.
"I'll take that as a no." Toph snorted, finishing off the kata.
Inspired by last night's Earth Rumble, she was working on some new moves, so for now all he was doing was just sitting back and watching. He'd never seen Toph actually practice before, even though he'd been keeping her company for a few weeks now. She just seemed so effortlessly good, that it was easy to forget that there had to be actual hard work behind it all.
He'd fallen into that trap with Azula. She was a prodigy, sure, but her lessons were even harder than his own had been, her instructors even more unrelenting. Thinking back on it, he'd been... well, not the greatest big brother to her sometimes. And sure, she hadn't exactly been the world's greatest little sister either, but he shouldn't have let his own feelings of inadequacy get to him the way they had. It wasn't Azula's fault their father thought he was worthless. Not really.
Except now he really was worthless, he thought, casting a glance towards the lanterns that lined the arena. Involuntarily, he felt himself reaching out towards the flames- only to let them go with a shudder the second he realized what he was doing, plunging the cave into sudden darkness as a result.
"You okay there, Scruffy?" Toph asked. "Your heartbeat just picked up."
Right. Figures Toph wouldn't notice.
"I, uh," Zuko chewed on his lip, "-I accidentally snuffed out the candles."
There was silence. Then Toph burst out laughing.
"It's not funny!" Zuko protested, grateful that it was both dark and that Toph was blind so that she couldn't see how red his cheeks were. "I can't see a thing!"
"Oh no," Toph said dryly, "-what a nightmare."
Zuko just glared in her general direction. "I'm glad you find this hilarious."
"Relax, Scruffy." Toph said, suddenly right in front of him now based on the closeness of her voice. If he squinted, he could just make out her shape in the dark. "Your seeing-feet earthbender is here."
"I never relax." Zuko grumbled. "And really? Seeing feet?"
"I'll admit that needs some work." Toph said. "Also I'm going to take your hand now."
He was grateful for the warning, even though it still startled him when Toph suddenly reached out to grab his said hand. He let the earthbender haul him to his feet, unsteady in the darkness. He exhaled, trying to find his center, suddenly desperately wishing for a light. It was so much darker in here than it was in the forest, even when the moon was invisible in the night sky.
He could make one, he knew. It would be easy. It should be easy.
"This is stupid," he mumbled, "-I'm a firebender. I should be able to make my own light."
"You're not stupid." Toph said, taking a step forward, and then another. She was unerring the darkness, using the very earth underneath their feet to guide their way while he just clung to her, useless, all thanks to a situation he'd created. "You're just scared. There's nothing wrong with that."
"Easy for you to say." Zuko huffed, nevertheless following Toph's lead. "You're not afraid of anything."
Least of all your own element, he mentally added.
"As much as I would like that to be true, I've got plenty of things I'm afraid of." Toph said. "Anything that separates me from the earth is a total no go for me. I like being able to see."
Zuko blinked- he'd never thought of it like that before. But also...
"I did that back at Earth Rumble, didn't I?" Zuko winced. "When I picked you up."
Toph just scoffed. "Please. I wasn't afraid, just embarrassed. You slung me over your shoulders like I was a bag of rice or something!"
"But," Toph quickly added, "-I knew you wouldn't drop me."
It was true. He wouldn't have. He wouldn't let anything hurt Toph, much less himself.
That was why he couldn't use fire. Fire burned, fire destroyed. It was hard to forget its destructive power when it was permanently burned into his face for all to see, when the stink of boiling flesh and burning hair still haunted his nightmares even months later.
When he could still hear the sound of his own screams.
Fire was dangerous. Too dangerous. Even the smallest spark could turn into a wildfire, burning out of control and destroying everything in its path. He couldn't use it.
He wouldn't use it.
He came to such an abrupt halt that Toph nearly stumbled over her own feet, but he barely even noticed. He hadn't even... when had it gone from couldn't, to wouldn't? When had his fear turned into outright refusal?
He hadn't even noticed.
He swallowed, feeling his inner flame flicker in response. It was weak- had been, ever since the Agni Kai. Now it was weaker than ever, barely any bigger than those of the candles he'd snuffed out by accident, all because he refused to firebend. He'd thought being able to warm things with his bending again had been a victory. Maybe all this time, it had just been a concession. He couldn't hurt anyone with a little warmth- but fire? Fire could hurt, it could maim, it could scar-
-it could kill.
Yun's cousin. Old Lady An's grandsons. So many others he didn't know, would never meet. How many people had died in the burned out ruins that had once been villages? He'd passed so many of them on his journey, heading deeper and deeper into the Earth Kingdom, seeking a place that wasn't yet touched by the war his people- his family- had started.
Zuko shuddered, moving to pull his hand away from Toph's. He was a firebender, he was dangerous, he shouldn't- he shouldn't be touching her. Shouldn't be near her, or anyone else for that matter. It wasn't just Toph he could hurt. It was everyone here, everyone who had been kind to him, even when they really shouldn't have been.
One day the kitchen fires wouldn't be out when he lost control. One day it wouldn't be snuffing out flames by accident, but rather-
Toph didn't let him. She just gripped his hand harder, her nails almost biting into his skin. He hissed, and she relaxed her grip slightly, but still didn't let go.
"You're not afraid of getting hurt again, are you?" Toph asked. "You're afraid of hurting someone else."
Zuko didn't say anything. He didn't have to for Toph to know she was right.
For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Then Toph let out a huff of air, before stomping forward, half-dragging him with her. She pulled him along with all the stubbornness of an earthbender, refusing to let him dig in his heels and stand his ground. Their earth was hers to command, and she did it as naturally as she did breathing.
Finally, they came to a halt at the edge of the arena. Without letting go of his hand, Toph stomped her foot, the sound of earth shifting towards them meeting his ears. Toph reached out and grabbed something, all but shoving it into his hand- hands, because she'd finally let go of his other one.
Not knowing what else to do, he took it. It was one of the two lanterns he'd borrowed originally. He could tell by the fact that it was metal, not stone, like the ones Toph had made herself.
"Light the flame." Toph said, with a firmness that almost reminded him of Uncle.
Zuko swallowed, then shook his head. "No."
"You're not going to hurt me, Li." Toph said, more firmly this time. "And this isn't good for you. Light the flame."
But two could play at that game. Zuko shoved the lantern right back at her, narrowing his eyes. "I said no."
Toph shoved the lantern right back, stomping her foot out of pure stubbornness. "I'm an earthbender, Li. Earth smothers flame."
"Well it's done a bad job of it so far!" Zuko snapped, suddenly losing his temper. "But then, what would you know? Your parents keep you away from the war. You haven't seen what my people have done to yours, and have been doing for almost a century now! Not that you even could!"
Toph went rigid, and instantly, Zuko felt the fight go out of him.
"I'm sorry," Zuko said quickly, "-I shouldn't have- I shouldn't have said that."
"So what?" Toph asked. "Are you just blaming yourself for everything the Fire Nation has ever done? That's stupid, Li. You can't do that."
In spite of himself, Zuko felt himself bristle. He'd just apologized to her, and she just- she didn't understand anything! He was the Fire Prince, and banished or not, that meant he bore the responsibility of his people's actions.
"You don't get it, do you?" Zuko asked. "I'm-!"
"Stop." Toph cut him off. "Just stop, Li."
Zuko snapped his mouth shut, glowering at a floor he couldn't even see.
"You can't do this." Toph finally spoke again, her voice quieter this time, but still deeply frustrated. "You can't just not bend."
"You don't get it." Zuko said. "Fire's not like earth. All it can do is destroy."
"Earth can destroy too." Toph said.
"Earth can create." Zuko retorted. "Fire can't."
Toph said nothing, but he could hear her shifting in the dark. Then finally-
"You're not even going to try, are you?"
"No," Zuko said, "-I won't."
They didn't talk after that.
Toph still helped lead him out of the pitch black cavern, but she didn't say a word the entire time, or on the way back to the manor. They went their separate ways without saying a word to each other.
It was, he realized, their first real fight.
He dreamed of Azula's smile that night.
They didn't say a word to each other the next day either.
Zuko carried out his duties without fail, escorting Toph wordlessly around the manor grounds. People definitely noticed, but nobody wanted to say anything.
He didn't wait up to see if she was going to sneak out that night. He didn't have to.
He knew she wouldn't.
That night he dreamed of the Earth Kingdom in ashes, his father standing victorious over the ruins of Gaoling.
His sister wasn't smiling anymore.
He was on chore duty with Xia-Su the next day, the two of them tasked with folding and returning washed laundry. He'd gotten better at it since his first time, when he couldn't even begin to figure out what went where. There was something almost meditative about folding clothes.
Too bad he wasn't in a meditating mood.
"So," Xia-Su began, apparently having decided that she'd had enough of beating around the bush, "-are you fighting with the young miss?"
"Not exactly." Zuko said, not looking up from the tunic he was folding.
He could feel Xia-Su's eyes on him, her skepticism clear in her voice. "So you're just not talking to each other for no reason, then."
"I don't see how it concerns you." Zuko blurted out, before wincing. Xia-Su was just trying to help. Lashing out at her was the last thing he should be doing.
But when she spoke next, she didn't seem the least bit bothered. "Of course it does. You're a part of us now. We-"
"-look after each other." Zuko finished. "Yeah. I remember."
"So?" Xia-Su asked. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing." Zuko lied. He couldn't tell her what was actually wrong, and it wasn't like he could just make something up on the fly. Just because he did it all the time now, didn't make him any good at lying. "It'll pass."
In lieu of a response, Xia-Su simply hummed, lapsing back into silence. They were nearly done folding the laundry when he chanced a look at her, carefully studying the older servant. She stood with her weight primarily on her left foot, avoiding putting too much of it on her bad leg.
"You can ask, you know."
Zuko jerked his head up, his eyes going from her leg to her face. She was looking right at him, her deep brown eyes soft in a way his gold ones had never quite been capable of. His mother's had been golden too, but they'd always been a softer gold, warmer.
He'd always had his father's eyes.
"Ask about what?" Zuko ducked his head, wishing his bangs would hurry up and finish growing out already.
"My leg." Xia-Su said. "You want to know, right?"
"I figured it was something you didn't want to talk about." Zuko said, suddenly keenly aware that she was standing on his left.
"I wasn't able to for years." Xia-Su admitted.
Zuko swallowed, shifting on his feet. He still didn't know if he should. It felt like an invasion of her privacy, even if she'd said it was okay.
In the end, curiosity won out.
"So," Zuko hesitated slightly, "-what happened?"
"It was my father." Xia-Su said- and suddenly, he wished he had more laundry to fold, if only to hide the way his hands twitched in response. "He was always a mean drunk, ever since I was a little girl. He used to be part of the Earth Kingdom army, before they tossed him out. Then he got even worse."
"Why," and he hated the way his breath hitched in his throat, how he couldn't help but picture his own father's face, "-why did they toss him out?"
Xia-Su's expression hardened. It was the first time he'd ever seen her look like that. "It wasn't the drinking."
She didn't elaborate. He picked up the signal loud and clear. Whatever he'd done, it wasn't something children needed to hear.
Xia-Su exhaled. It suddenly dawned on him that she wished her hands were probably still busy too. "We used to live in a port town, not all that far from Ba Sing Se. I was about your age when the Fire Nation showed up to use it as a base for their troops."
And all too quickly, he realized part of where this story was headed.
"The Siege of Ba Sing Se," he mumbled.
Xia-Su hummed in confirmation. "Having so many Fire Nation soldiers around just made my father's drinking even worse. He used to just yell a lot, but after the soldiers came, he started wanting to fight. Only he never fought the right people."
"You," the words just slipped out before he could stop it, "-he tried to fight you."
"He got really mad one night." Xia-Su said. "I don't even remember what it was that he was mad about, but at some point, yelling and shouting just wasn't enough."
She had to stop to compose herself, taking in a deep breath. He chanced a look up at her, but she wasn't looking at him. Her eyes were far away, some place else entirely. In the past, probably- back when she was a little girl with an angry father and nowhere to go.
"Yang reminds me of him, sometimes." She said, in a quiet voice. "He was an earthbender too."
Something finally clicked into place. No wonder she'd sounded so worried.
"I tried to run away from him." Xia-Su said. "He wasn't having that. He trapped my leg, but I was already running, so..."
She shuddered, resting her hand on her right leg. He wondered if she was feeling the phantom pain of an injury received long ago. You couldn't just stop that much momentum so abruptly. Not without consequences.
"He wasn't even sorry." Xia-Su mumbled. "He thought I deserved it."
"You didn't." Zuko replied automatically, because she hadn't.
She hadn't, and neither had he.
"No," Xia-Su agreed, "-I didn't."
"So... what happened to him after that?" Zuko asked. "Your father, I mean."
Xia-Su almost snorted. "It was after curfew, and I screamed so loudly that I attracted the attention of the nightly patrol. Turns out not even Fire Nation soldiers can stomach fathers breaking their own daughter's legs. They arrested him on the spot. I never saw him again after that."
Zuko frowned, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. Somehow, out of all the ways the story could have ended, he hadn't expected it to be with the Fire Nation actually helping someone for once, even if these had been his Uncle's men. He'd been a different person back then, after all.
Then again, he didn't think even that Uncle would have approved of fathers hurting little girls they were supposed to protect.
"After that, it just never healed quite right." Xia finished with a shrug. "Come on. We should get this laundry delivered before people start to riot. And by people, I mean the guy who never gives us his laundry until he's worn every piece of clothing he owns first."
"You can just say Yun," Zuko said, "-it's okay."
Xia-Su laughed, scooping up her laundry basket. Balancing it on her left hip, she took a step forward, half-dragging her right leg behind her.
"Are you ever scared of them?" Zuko blurted out before he could stop himself. "Of earthbenders, I mean."
Xia-Su glanced back at him, her gaze only briefly flickering in the direction of his scar. "I think I was more afraid of the earth turning against me again. I couldn't go outside for months, even after I'd healed."
"How did you... how did you get past that?" Zuko asked.
"Time, mostly." Xia-Su told him. "Some things you just can't rush. But if you give it time, and you never stop trying, even the worst damage can heal."
"Your leg never did." Zuko countered.
"No, I suppose it didn't." Xia-Su admitted. "But I can still walk. I just had to learn a new way of doing it."
Zuko swallowed, before ducking his head and pushing past Xia-Su, muttering a faint apology. He needed some time to think.
He wondered if the survivors from the forty-first division were afraid of the earth turning against them too.
He wondered if there even were any.
Toph didn't look up, or even turn around to face him. "So."
Zuko sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. Sitting down behind Toph, he rested his hands in his lap. He'd been thinking a lot, but the one thing he kept coming back to was the fact that he needed to try and make up with Toph. This wasn't something he wanted to lose her friendship over.
"I'm sorry about before." Zuko finally said. "You were just trying to help."
"Yep." Toph agreed. "But for what its worth, I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have pushed you. Earthbending is all about waiting and listening, but I wasn't doing much of either."
"I mean... you were right." Zuko admitted, more to himself than to Toph. "Being scared is one thing, but I can't just- I can't run away from what I am."
He'd been trying to, he realized. It was easier than trying to face his fears, trying to face the prospect that he might have to start over from scratch. Maybe if he just kept telling himself he couldn't firebend, he'd stop being a firebender.
But it didn't work like that. He couldn't just stop being a firebender. And he... he probably shouldn't, even if he could. That would just be running away.
He was a lot of things, but no matter what his father thought, a coward wasn't one of them. Cowards were fathers who burnt the faces of their begging sons, fathers who broke the legs of daughters trying to flee their violence.
"So you're not giving up on bending?" Toph asked.
"No." Zuko shook his head. "But I think it's going to take me a little while longer to get past this block."
"Good." Toph said. "I was worried."
"I know you were." Zuko smiled, finally identifying what that odd feeling that bubbled up from his stomach was. It had been too long since he'd felt safe.
"And... thanks," he added, "-for being worried."
"Can we stop not talking now?" Toph asked. "It's getting pretty old."
"It's only been one day." Zuko pointed out. "And we're talking right now."
Toph quirked a grin, finally turning around. "Good point."
"I make a lot of good points, actually." Zuko said.
"Really? Cause that's news to me." Toph cracked. "I thought that head of yours was filled with nothing but air."
"What do I look like," Zuko began, the edges of his lips curling into a grin, "-an airbender?"
Toph blinked- and then grinned right back. "Gee, Scruffy, I don't know. What do you look like?"
"Wouldn't you like to know." Zuko said, with every ounce of mock smugness he could muster- which was a lot, actually. He had been a spoiled prince once.
Toph pretended to consider it for a few moments, before eventually shrugging. "You know what? I actually don't care."
Zuko laughed. He still hadn't solved his bending problem, but at the very least he wasn't fighting with Toph anymore. Never firebending again would still be more preferable to losing his best friend to some stupid fight.
"So," Toph began, "-about that stage name. I have a few ideas..."