"No wait- I think I've got it."
"Well don't hold back, Scruffy." Toph said. "Let's hear it."
No matter how much she'd refined it, there were still things her earth sense couldn't tell her- and people's expressions were one of them. Still, she didn't need working eyesight to know that Li was currently looking at her very seriously, doubtlessly way more seriously than anything that was about to come out of his mouth would merit.
"The Earth Rumbler."
"Wow," Toph arched her brows, "-you weren't kidding about being bad at naming things."
Li huffed, folding his arms in front of him. "Well if you have any better ideas, I'd love to hear them."
"Actually," Toph said, "-I've had a name in mind for awhile now."
"You have?" Li asked. "For how long?"
"Since five days ago." Toph said.
"Five- and you've just let me spend the last five days coming up with awful stage names?" Li asked, sounding almost betrayed. His voice even cracked a little.
Toph grinned. "You seemed like you were having fun. I didn't want to get in the way."
Li stared at her for a few moments, before throwing up his hands in frustration. "You know what? Fine. I don't even know why I tried."
Toph snickered, knowing all too well that he wasn't actually upset. An upset Li was a quiet Li, so if he was being this dramatic, it was a pretty good sign that he was just frustrated. With their last fight still fresh in her memory, actually upsetting him was the last thing she wanted to do.
Pressing him had been a mistake. She realized that now, but at the time she'd just been so frustrated and so appalled when she'd realized that Li wasn't just unable to firebend, but that he didn't want to. Bending didn't work that way- even her parents knew better than to keep her from earthbending entirely. It just wasn't healthy for a bender to not bend, especially not for such a long period of time. Li might be fine now, but eventually...
She'd just been scared, really. She'd finally made a friend, and now it was like that friend was trying to destroy themselves from the inside out. So she'd pushed, thinking that if she could just get him to light one candle, that maybe he could take that first step to getting his firebending back.
She hadn't been wrong but... it hadn't been the right time, and it hadn't been the right way. She was just glad that they'd been able to make up. She wasn't sure what she'd do if Li had stayed mad at her.
"So?" Li said, sounding expectant. "What's this great name of yours?"
Toph beamed, folding her arms and confidently lifting her chin. "The Blind Bandit."
"The Blind Bandit." Li repeated, his tone way too unimpressed for the cool name she'd come up with. "Really? That's your great stage name? What are you even stealing?"
"The win, obviously."
"That's-" Li began, before cutting himself off, actually seeming to consider it for a moment, "-that's actually not too bad."
"Right?" Toph grinned. "The Boulder may have won this Rumble, but at Earth Rumble Five? I'm coming for his blood."
"Like literally or-?"
"Yeah, I was planning on just stabbing him." Toph said, making the motion with her hand before snorting. "Of course not, dumbass. Don't they teach you about figures of speech in the Fire Nation?"
"Who even taught you that word?" Li asked, completely ignoring the rest of her statement. "I didn't teach you that word."
"Li, you spent ten minutes calling Fire Nation Man a dumbass the other day." Toph pointed out.
(Among other things. It had been a very informative rant.)
"That... might have possibly happened." Li said, which was as close as he would get to admitting it definitely absolutely had happened and he just didn't want to be honest about the fact that he had an unimaginably dirty mouth for a thirteen year old.
Well, maybe. It wasn't like she had much experience with swearing either. All she knew was that if she was going to be a part of the next Earth Rumble, then she had to step up her trash talk game. She might be the greatest earthbender in the world, but she wouldn't get anywhere if she could throw down insults with the best of them.
"It's okay, Scruffy." Toph said. "Your secret's safe with me."
Li just snorted. "I hope they're safe with you."
"I swear it on the spirits of the earth." Toph said. "Plus whatever crazy spirits you Fire Nation folk worship."
Li groaned. "Please tell me they at least teach you about our spirits."
"Do they teach you about our spirits?" Toph countered.
Li opened his mouth to say something, only to think better of it. "No. At least my tutors didn't."
His heart rate picked up immediately after he said that, so she was going to go out on a limb and guess that he hadn't meant to elaborate. Then again, it wasn't like this wasn't something she didn't already know- Scruffy's scruffiness wasn't quite enough to mask his noble upbringing.
At least, not to her. Her parents, on the other hand...
Well, her mother still thought she was performing a great act of charity by taking what she thought was a homeless, orphaned refugee in. And her father definitely hadn't realized the fact that if Li really were Earth Kingdom, like he said he was, he'd be yet another one of the boys from noble families that he was putting on a list to arrange her marriage to.
(She didn't know if he actually had a physical list. But he was definitely keeping track.)
"So what do they teach you about us?" Toph asked, unable to deny her curiosity. Li didn't talk about the Fire Nation much- not without some prompting on her part.
She could almost feel Li's wince. "Do you want the honest answer?"
"Wouldn't have asked if I didn't." Toph shrugged.
"That you're all savages who need to be saved from yourselves." Li said. "I mean, they used fancier words than that, but that's basically what it boils down to."
"Huh," Toph said, arching a brow, "-because my tutors taught me that you're the savages. The bloodthirsty, warmongering kind."
Li snorted, but it was the dry, humorless sort. "Well, they're not exactly wrong."
"Eh, the Earth Kingdom can be a little backwards too. At least the Fire Nation actually lets its women do stuff." Toph shrugged, before tilting her head slightly. "So if you're a savage, and I'm a savage, then which one of us is driving this carriage?"
"Hopefully someone who can actually see."
She hadn't realized what good acoustics her private training cavern had until she had someone around to keep her company. Her cackle practically bounced off the walls, loud and gleeful.
(It also made Li's quiet laugh all the louder.)
"You want to try tonight?"
Her earth sense was precise enough to tell her that Li wasn't looking at her- but that he was looking at one of the lanterns.
"No," he finally said, "-not tonight."
Toph pretended not to be disappointed. But at the same time, if there was one thing their fight had taught her, it was that Scruffy needed to heal at his own pace, not hers.
"That's okay," she said, "-you can try again tomorrow."
"You know," Yun piped up, "-the little lady's birthday is at the end of the month."
Zuko blinked, glancing up at the older man. "What's your point?"
"Aren't you going to get her something?" Yun asked, stepping to the side to let him get to the communal pot. "You two are friends, right?"
Zuko just snorted, ladling a generous portion of congee into his bowl. He'd only recently learned that nobody would get mad at him for taking a little more. In fact, whenever he tried to take less, he usually ended up with one of the other servants ladling more into his bowl for him, typically over his own protests.
("You're a growing boy," Old Lady An had told him when he'd protested one too many times for her taste, "-you have to eat more than the rest of us old folks.")
"What could I even get her?" Zuko asked. "She's rich."
He tried very, very hard to keep any possible bitterness out of his tone.
He wasn't so sure he succeeded.
"Ah, I'm sure you'll figure out something." Yun said. "You could always buy her flowers. Girls love flowers!"
"She's nine," Zuko said, and then, almost as an afterthought, "-and blind. I don't think she'd be very interested in flowers."
"You could always try sweet cakes." Xia-Su said, scooting over a little to give him a bit more room on the bench. "I know for a fact the young miss likes those."
Zuko sat next to her, setting down his bowl of congee. "I don't think I could buy any that are better than what she usually gets."
The truth was he'd never actually given anyone a birthday present before, not really. He'd gotten them, sure- usually from his mother or his Uncle, or from Lu Ten, when he'd still been alive. He'd made an attempt to give Mai one once, but he hadn't actually been able to work up the nerve to do it.
(It was probably for the best. Azula would have just destroyed it anyways.)
"You're overthinking this." Old Lady An remarked, wagging her spoon at him almost accusingly. "It's the thought that counts when it comes to presents, not the content."
Zuko frowned, unsure what to say to that. He'd argue that the content was pretty important too- otherwise they'd just end up like that doll Uncle had sent Azula from Ba Sing Se. While he doubted that Toph was the type to set unwanted presents on fire, he still didn't want to give her something that she didn't actually want.
"You could always ask." Xia-Su suggested.
"He can't do that!" Yun protested. "It would spoil the surprise!"
"What surprise?" Xia-Su asked. "I'm fairly certain the young miss knows when her own birthday is."
"Yeah, but then she'd know what he was getting her." Yun countered. "If you don't ask, then you can-"
Zuko just ate his congee in silence, listening to a tea server and a house maid bicker about gift giving etiquette. He'd stopped wondering about the curveball that was his life around the time Earth Kingdom nobles had hired him to be a bodyguard for a girl who really didn't need one, and had stopped thinking anything could be bizarre right around the third time said daughter had handed his ass to him in a makeshift underground arena.
This? This was just normal.
"You know, your father and I were thinking-"
And there was a phrase that never lead to anything good.
"-you will turn ten at the end of the month. Nearly a young lady! We should have a banquet in your honor."
In her honor, her foot. All her parents wanted was an excuse to schmooze with other nobles- and maybe show her off to any potential suitors. If she had any say in the matter, she'd put her foot down and refuse the whole kit and caboodle, but she didn't.
"That sounds wonderful, mother." Toph said instead, all fake smiles and cheerfulness. "Will Li be able to come?"
"He will guard you, yes, as is his duty," her father began, "-but Toph, you must understand that you are not to talk to him during the banquet. It would be... unseemly."
Unseemly. Toph wanted to gag.
"I am quite certain Li understands this as well." Her mother said, in a tone that suggested she only ever saw what she wanted to see. And what she wanted to see when she looked at Li was a dutiful servant boy- so that was exactly what she got.
"Of course." Toph said. "Who is to be invited?"
If she was going to put up with this, she'd at least like a little fair warning as to who she would be dealing with.
As his daughter left the room, Lao Beifong made brief eye contact with her bodyguard. The boy held his gaze for only a few brief seconds, before he bowed to him. In return, Lao slightly inclined his head in acknowledgement, watching Li as he escorted his daughter away so that she could prepare for her first lesson of the day.
He'd had his doubts about Li in those first few weeks, but to his surprise, the boy had proven himself to be dutiful, if nothing else. Properly washed and attired, he looked presentable enough- if one could somehow manage to ignore the burn. He had no complaints about his work ethic, and his manners were almost impeccable, especially surprising since it was doubtful that he could have been little more than a peasant's child, even before the war had forced him to flee from his home.
Rather than wane, his friendship with his daughter had only grown stronger. Toph was clearly happier than ever, and he would be lying if he claimed that seeing her so happy did not lift his spirits in turn.
But his daughter was also at that delicate age where it was easy to forget her own station. That was the sort of behavior that brought about scandals, and he would not allow the Beifong family to fall into such foolishness. Theirs was a noble lineage, tracing back generations, and he was not about to see it become tainted under his watch.
But he supposed this trouble would pass soon enough. He was coming to understand that there was a certain wisdom in his decision to hire Li as his daughter's bodyguard. The scar that had disfigured him so badly also gave the boy a certain menace. After all, if he looked this intimidating at thirteen, he couldn't even begin to imagine how much more so he would look as an adult. He might never even need to draw his swords- a simple glare would be deterrent enough.
And that, Lao decided, was worth its weight in gold.
(And worth, hopefully, the gnawing feeling he got in the pit of his stomach whenever the boy's eyes looked especially so.)
"So how does someone even sign up for an Earth Rumble?"
Toph paused mid-step, tilting her head. "I have no idea."
"We probably should look into that." Li said, coming to a halt next to her.
"Probably." Toph said, resuming walking. She liked this part- the part where they chatted freely and openly while heading to their sparring grounds almost as much as she liked the sparring itself. "And by we, I of course mean you."
"What," Li began, "-don't feel like shaking down the criminal underbelly of Gaoling with me to find out how a person takes part in their illegal earthbending fight club?"
"As tempting as that sounds, I'll pass." Toph said. "Imagine what would happen if I got caught by the guards."
"Imagine what would happen if I got caught by the guards." Li countered. "I'm not exactly unrecognizable, Toph."
"Really? That's news to me, Scruffy."
In truth, she kind of knew that. It was kind of hard not to. She wished she could pass on some of her confidence to Li, because apparently just being half-blind wasn't enough to stop him from feeling self-conscious about his own supposedly ruined looks. It certainly didn't matter to her that the burn his father had given him had left him disfigured, but it seemed to matter to Li, so that was what really mattered.
She got the feeling he appreciated having someone around who couldn't see it nevertheless.
Li snorted, taking her words as the joke they were meant as. "Come on. You can't tell me that you don't want to rough up some ruffians."
"Ruffians?" Toph asked. "Geez, Scruffy, make it more obvious you used to have actual status, why don't you?"
"...is it that obvious?" Li asked. She was pretty sure he winced.
"To me?" Toph said. "It's super obvious. But I'm not sure my parents have noticed."
"That's... probably for the best." Li said. "The less questions they have about my past, the better. Somehow I don't think they'd react all that well if they knew I was Fire Nation."
Toph considered it for a few seconds, before grunting in agreement. "Yeah, you're probably on to something there, Scruffy."
"Good to know." Li said. "So do you want to come or not?"
"I thought you were against the idea." Toph said.
"I mean, we could always just wear masks." Li shrugged. "Nobody would recognize us then."
Toph grinned. "I think you just want to beat up some ruffians."
She'd nudge him with her elbow, but she was currently walking by his left side. Scruffy still got pretty jumpy whenever someone tried to touch him from that side, even if it was her. Actually, he still got pretty jumpy when anyone tried to touch him at all, but they'd started to work out something of an understanding. She didn't know if it was just because she was a kid like him, or if it meant that he trusted her. Either way, she didn't want to be the source of one of his freak outs, even if she didn't meant to be.
And even if he tried very hard to act like he wasn't freaking out. Maybe if she wasn't blind, he actually might have been able to fool her, but his heartbeat didn't lie.
"Look, do you want in or not?" Li asked.
"Hey, I'm all for beating up a couple of crooks." Toph shrugged. "But I don't exactly think that's the best idea. I mean, won't they just figure it out later when I show up at the next Earth Rumble? I don't know if you've noticed, but there weren't an awful lot of participants my height."
"That... might actually be a good point." Li admitted. "When did you get so smart?"
"Please, I've always been this smart." Toph said, puffing out her chest. "You just don't think things through, that's all."
"I think things through!" Li protested.
"Yeah?" Toph asked. "Like when?"
Li remained noticeably silent.
"Can't think of anything, can you?" Toph asked. "That's okay. I think it's one of your charm points."
"Gee, thanks." Li said dryly. She was pretty sure he'd just rolled his eyes.
"Any time." Toph said, coming to a halt in front of the entrance to what had become their own personal sparring arena, stomping on the ground to form the tunnel. "Now come on. I'm dying to blow off some steam after today."
"Yeah, I kind of figured." Li said. "Are your parents really trying to-?"
"Pretty much." Toph said. "I mean, I think I've got another two years or so before they actually make any serious commitments, but in their viewpoint, I'm not exactly good for much else but being married off to the highest bidder that will take me."
"Well if they can't see how amazing you are, they're the blind ones." Li told her.
"Thanks." Toph smiled. "I mean, I know that much already, but it's always nice to hear someone else say it."
It really was, actually. It was funny. She didn't realize just how much she needed someone like Li until he was already in her life. She wondered if it was the same way for him- if he ever felt like she was a missing piece that had fallen into place, something he'd needed all along, but hadn't even realized was missing.
"So," Toph said, changing the topic before things could get too mushy, "-you ever have that problem? You know, back when you were Lord Fancypants, back in the Fire Nation?"
"I was never Lord Fancypants." Li protested, even though she knew that was a lie. "And I don't really know. I know there were always offers of marriage from other noble families, but I don't now how seriously fat- how seriously they were being considered."
She pretended not to notice the slip-up, just like Li pretended he hadn't made it. "Yeah? No little sparkfire waiting for you back home?"
"I didn't say that." Li huffed. "But I'd be surprised if she was actually waiting for me, what with being banished and all. And even if she was, I don't think her parents would let her."
Toph hummed. She really wanted to pursue the topic more- mostly the banishment thing. She didn't exactly care all that much for romance.
She already knew that he couldn't go home, but banished? As in, literally banished? Just how bad had he messed up to have that happen? And just who was his father that he could have that arranged so easily?
Probably some jerk general who had the Fire Lord's ear, she thought. Well, whoever they were, if she ever met them, they could be damn sure she'd give them a taste of the Earth Kingdom. Preferably on the left side of their face.
Let's see how they liked being disfigured.
"How about tonight?"
Li looked towards the lanterns, shifting slightly on his feet, before shaking his head. "I don't think tonight's good."
She shrugged. "Tomorrow, then."
"Yeah... maybe tomorrow."
"So, you figure out what to get her yet?"
"No, Yun, I haven't figured out what to get Toph yet." Zuko replied, fighting the urge to groan. "And this is the third time you've asked me that."
"It's your first birthday with the little lady since you joined us." Yun shrugged, squinting at the plate he was cleaning, probably trying to determine if that was a real speck or just a trick of the light. "I just want to make sure things go well."
"Thanks," Zuko said, "-but I think I've got it handled."
He absolutely did not have it handled. Days were ticking past, and he still hadn't thought up a present for Toph. And the more time passed, the more he felt like he had to get her something. They were supposed to be friends, weren't they? And Toph had done so much for him, more than she would ever know, so he had to pay her back somehow.
He just... didn't know how.
Setting the questionably clean plate back in the bucket, Yun gave him a long look. "Yeah, sorry if I doubt that, kid."
Zuko shot him a glare.
Yun just snorted. "Kid, I've seen you stick your finger with a needle five times in a row while trying to learn how to mend clothes. You can't scare me with that glare."
Yeah, he didn't think so either. But it was worth trying.
"Look," Yun said, "-clearly you're new at this gift-giving thing. So how about I take you to town on your next day off? Maybe we can find something the little lady will like."
"What makes you the gift giving expert?" Zuko asked, then added, "-and I don't have any days off."
"No days off!" Yun exclaimed, his eyes wide with horror. "Nope. Nun-uh. That won't do. I'll petition Lord Beifong myself if I have to. You're thirteen, you can't just work non-stop with no days off."
"I wouldn't exactly call it work." Zuko said. "All I do is escort Toph around the manor."
Besides, it wasn't like he never had any breaks. Sometimes Toph's parents would send him away for hours. He just... hadn't had any actual days off since coming here, that was all. It didn't seem that strange to him- none of the servants back home had days off either, so he just assumed that was how it worked.
Then again, the Beifong servants had days off, so maybe...
"Besides, if La- Lord Beifong," Zuko hastily corrected himself, "-wanted me to have time off, he would give it to me."
Yun just stared at him like he'd just said something stupid. It was a look he was becoming incredibly familiar with. "That's not... that's not how-"
"Right," Yun muttered, half to himself, "-of course you wouldn't know. Lord Beifong doesn't schedule our days off. You have to ask Miyuki, and she'll pass on all such requests to him for approval. That's part of her job as head servant."
Zuko's cheeks flushed, the water in his bucket growing slightly warmer in response. "Oh. Um. I didn't- I didn't know that."
Yun just sighed, patting him on the shoulder. He flinched at the touch, and almost automatically, the older man withdrew his hand. "Don't worry about it, kid. But we're getting you that day off."
"Do we have to-?"
"Yes, we have to." Yun said firmly. "You only have two weeks until the little lady's birthday! Two weeks, Li!"
"I know how to count, thanks." Zuko grumbled, reigning in his embarrassment before his water started to steam. Even that small, involuntarily act of firebending caused his inner flame to flicker in response, and he could feel it yearning to do more.
Toph was right. This wasn't good for him.
"It's settled, then." Yun said. "The end of the week, you and I will go into town and pick out a present for the little lady."
"How is it settled? I haven't even-" Zuko began, but Yun had already turned away, flagging down a passing Xia-Su.
"Xia-Su!" Yun called out. "I'm taking the kid present shopping on my next day off! You should come with us!"
Xia-Su merely arched a brow, looking between the mustached man and him. "And Li agreed to this?"
"Sure has!" Yun beamed.
Xia-Su held his gaze for a second longer, before shrugging. "Sure, sounds fun. And someone needs to help save you from Yun's ideas."
Yun frowned, his brow crinkling. "You know, between you and Li, I'm starting to think the younger generation is full of sass."
Zuko had to bite back a laugh. He couldn't help but think of Toph, who was even younger than him- and infinitely sassier.
"You have no idea."
"I guess I have a day off tomorrow?"
"You guess?" Toph asked, even as she easily avoided Li's most recent attempt at a feint. One of these days he'd learn they never worked. "Shouldn't you be sure?"
"It was decided pretty suddenly." Li remarked, leaping backwards in time to avoid her responding pillar of rock. "And mostly without my input."
"This isn't something I should be worried about, should it?" Toph asked. She wasn't detecting any irregularities in Li's heartbeat, but it never hurt to ask. She was starting to get the feeling that his barometer for fine was way off.
"Not really." Li said. "Two of the other servants heard I hadn't taken a day off yet, and roped me into going on a shopping trip with them."
Which didn't feel like a lie, but there was definitely something he was leaving out.
"Shopping, huh?" Toph asked, darting out of the way of Li's next attack. His speed was just a bit of a problem, especially now that he'd gotten better at predicting her moves. "Shopping for anything in particular?"
"No," Li lied, "-just, you know... totally normal shopping."
Toph fought the urge to grin, because she was pretty sure she'd figured out what- and who- he was shopping for. And it touched her that he'd was thinking of her, even if truthfully, he didn't need to give her a present, not when he was the present.
Though she was curious to see what he'd come up with.
"Well," Toph said, countering his follow-up attack with a slab of rock, "-if you find a sense of humor, be sure to get it."
"Thanks, Toph." Li's tone was as dry as the desert that surrounded Ba Sing Se. "I'll be sure to keep that in mind."
Toph just beamed.
"How about tonight?"
Li looked towards the lanterns for a long time before reaching out a hand- and then dropped it, shaking his head. "No. Not tonight."
She just gave him a light punch on his right shoulder for the trouble, taking pains to make sure he knew it was coming so that he didn't flinch. "You'll get there."
"Thanks." Li said- before viciously attacking her hair, too quick for her to stop him. "Now let's go home."
Toph blinked at his choice of words, before she smiled. "Yeah. Home."
It was feeling a little more like one to her these days too.
Compared to the tiny villages he'd passed through on his way here, Gaoling was practically bustling. It still wasn't as lively as the Caldera, but then, that might be his own nostalgic longing for the city of his birth coloring his impression.
It also made him feel keenly out of place. Everywhere he looked, there were people in Earth Kingdom colors, green and brown and yellow- and while he was wearing brown himself, he still couldn't shake the feeling that he stuck out like a sore thumb, a firebender in a foreign land that justifiably hated his kind.
It made him feel strangely glad for the company.
"So, uh," Zuko shifted awkwardly on his feet, glancing between Yun and Xia-Su, "-where do we start?"
"Why, that would be-!"
"If you're going to say flowers again," Xia-Su cut Yun off, "-then I'm going to take Li and leave you behind."
Yun snapped his mouth shut. "I wasn't going to say flowers."
"Good." Xia-Su said. "I was thinking we could start on the artisan's street and work our way down. I'm sure we'll find something from the young miss."
"Artisan's street?" Zuko asked.
"It's where the finest artisans in all of Gaoling gather!" Yun said with a dramatic sweep of his hand. "Some might say the finest artisans in all of the southern Earth Kingdom!"
"Isn't Omashu in the southern Earth Kingdom?" Zuko asked, only somewhat dimly recalling the stronghold's location from his geography lessons.
"Eh, Omashu's more for craftsmen." Yun said. "And I hear its king drives a lot of them out by making eccentric requests."
Zuko frowned. He had heard that King Bumi was something of an eccentric, but he'd assumed that was just more propaganda. Guess it wasn't.
"I don't think Li's here to debate the difference between an artisan and a craftsman." Xia-Su said. "Come on, we can start with the potter's."
Xia-Su walked ahead, leaving him behind with Yun. The older man shrugged, falling into step behind the servant girl. He couldn't help but notice that they had both spruced themselves up a little for the trip into town- Yun had groomed his mustache, and Xia-Su had left her hair down for once, instead of in the braid she usually wore while working. It left him feeling even more out of place, and unconsciously, he reached up to touch his hair.
"Li!" Xia-Su called out to him. "Come on, you don't want to get lost!"
Zuko bristled, biting back a retort that he wouldn't get lost. It had only been the one time, and they didn't even know about that! Still, he dropped his hand and hurried to catch up with the pair, all the while taking in the sights of the marketplace. No artisans- or craftsmen- lived in the Caldera, though some did have shops there. But those were mostly just storefronts to sell merchandise- the actual work was done elsewhere, and was brought into the city. Uncle had told him once that they used to be allowed workshops within the Caldera itself, but that had changed when his grandfather had ascended to the throne. He'd never cared for all the mess.
Zuko had to disagree.
Stepping into the potters, Zuko instantly sensed the fires used to keep the kilns running. They tugged at him, calling out to him, and he forced himself to take a long breath, exhaling slowly. He didn't want his lack of control to cause anyone's work to blow up in their face- or you know, start a fire. That too.
"You think the little lady likes pots?" Yun asked, picking one up and peering inside, as if he expected to find a treasure. "She doesn't seem the pot type to me."
Zuko snorted. She'd just use the pot for more secret earthbending practice. Which was certainly an idea, but he'd feel kind of bad for the person who had worked so hard to make it.
"No, I don't think she is." Zuko said.
"Huh," Yun said, eyeing Xia-Su, "-and here I thought you were the one who was supposed to be good at this."
Xia-Su flushed. "The potter's shop is the first one."
Zuko just hummed, looking around anyways. A row of teacups caught his eye, and he smiled, unable to help but think of Uncle. One in particular caught his eye- the bright red flowers that had been painted onto it resembled fire lilies, though he doubted the person who made it had ever actually seen one. They didn't grow outside of the Fire Nation.
"You think she'd like a teacup?"
Zuko flinched, not realizing he'd picked the cup up. Hastily setting it back down, he shook his head. "Just liked the design."
Xia-Su just smiled at him, before motioning towards the door with her hand. "Come on. There's plenty of other shops to see."
Zuko nodded, following the pair of servants out the door. The kiln fires seemed almost sad to see him go.
"-is not a shop we're going into, unless you want Xia-Su to spend the next five hours in there." Yun finished. "Besides, we all know none of us can afford glass."
Xia-Su simply sighed, eying the glassblower's store with unmasked longing. "A girl can dream."
"Oh, she might like this headdress."
Zuko frowned, looking at the headdress in question. Toph did always keep her hair up in a large bun, so she might appreciate the functionally of the present, even if she couldn't appreciate the full extent of the craftsmanship. It wasn't a bad option.
At least, until he looked at the price tag.
"Li, I don't think the little lady needs a mask."
Zuko flushed, quickly setting down the Blue Spirit mask he'd been holding. He'd actually kind of forgotten about Toph. He'd just been so excited to see something from his mother's favorite play here of all places- he didn't think Love Amongst the Dragons was even performed in the Earth Kingdom, given its Fire Nation ties.
"I just- it looked cool." Zuko replied lamely, his cheeks dusted with a faint tint of pink.
"Oh yeah, you like theater, right?" Yun asked.
Zuko swiftly nodded, almost wishing he was an earthbender so he could just stomp on the ground and sink himself into a pit. That would be nice.
Then he remembered Xia-Su was with them, and thought better of it.
"Anyways," Zuko cleared his throat, trying to regain some measure of dignity, "-I don't think Toph needs a mask. Let's just move on."
If the two servants shared a knowing look after he brushed past them, he didn't stick around long enough to find out.
"Is that an... Avatar Kyoshi puppet?"
"You think the little lady would like a puppet?" Yun asked.
"No." Zuko said, not taking his eyes off the wooden marionette carved in the last Earth Avatar's likeness. "I just think it's kind of funny."
"Well don't tell the puppetmaker that." Xia-Su said. "He's from Kyoshi Island originally. He'll probably just spend the next half hour lecturing you on disrespect."
Zuko eyed the puppetmaker warily, a feat he had to turn his head slightly to accomplish. The old man just smiled at him, waving a hand, oblivious to the comment he'd just made. He quickly concluded that while it wouldn't be anywhere near as bad as the last lecture on disrespect he had gotten- if you could call getting half his face burned of a lecture- but it wasn't one he wanted anyways.
"Yeah, let's just... go."
They broke for lunch. Yun offered to pay for the both of them, and wouldn't take no for an answer from either one of them. Eventually they both just gave up.
The person running the food cart must have had some Fire blood in him, Zuko decided. There was no other possible reason to explain why he had actual spices in stock, and not just the usual Earth Kingdom assortment of herbs. Xia-Su and Yun watched on in mild horror as he dumped half a container of fire flakes into his bowl, but he didn't care. It had been way too long since he'd had food that was actually spicy.
He got the name of the spice merchant afterwards. He was definitely going to pay them a visit later, his cover be damned.
(His inner flame seemed to approve.)
"Do we even need to look in the tile shop?" Zuko asked.
"Eh, probably not." Yun shrugged.
The tile merchant, who was busy laying samples outside his shop, just glared at them. Zuko brushed it off. He could glare better, anyways.
"Yun," Xia-Su began, the air around her so icy that Zuko was briefly convinced she was actually a secret waterbender, "-the young miss is turning ten. She doesn't need alcohol."
"No buts." Xia-Su said firmly. "Come on, we're moving on before you can give Li any bad habits."
Zuko chuckled in spite of himself, prompting both servants to stop and stare. He instantly flushed, ducking his head and missed their shared smiles.
"The young miss absolutely does not need a sword." Xia-Su said firmly, and then, catching his look, added, "-or a knife, for that matter."
Zuko huffed in protest, but still let Xia-Su drag him out of the bladesmith's shop. Maybe Toph would like a knife. Azula had been jealous of the one Uncle had sent him, and she was closer in age to Toph than he was. Mai liked knives too, so he was fairly confident that girls in general liked them.
Then again, Xia-Su was a girl too, so... maybe Earth Kingdom girls were different.
He still thought Toph would like a knife.
Gift giving, Zuko concluded, was hard. They'd spent all day going through the market, and he hadn't found one thing that he thought Toph would like that he could also afford. He hadn't realized it until now, since he so rarely spent any of his earnings, but living off a servant's salary was hard, even if he'd been assured that the Beifongs paid generously.
(Still an improvement over stretching an ever dwindling supply of coppers as long as he feasibly could.)
"Don't let it get you down." Xia-Su assured him. "You still have another two weeks to think of a present. I'm sure you'll figure out something before then."
Zuko just grunted, more tired than anything else. At least today hadn't been a total waste, he thought, clutching his bag of spices a bit closer to his chest almost like he expected someone to steal it. No more putting up with bland, under seasoned Earth Kingdom food.
"Just for the record," Yun began, eyeing the bag warily, "-you're not planning on putting any of that into the communal pot, are you?"
Zuko just grinned in response.
He didn't, because he wasn't awful. But damned if he didn't think about keeping a small pouch of the hottest spices on his person, just in case he ever had a chance to sneak them into Yang's food. The only thing that stopped him was the fact that he'd absolutely be the first suspect, and the last thing he wanted was to give the guardsman any validity to his suspicions.
But Agni, was it tempting.
"If you go through with it, you have to let me know." Toph said when he told her, a slightly malicious tinge to her usual toothy grin. "I want to hear him shriek."
Zuko snorted, his lips quirking in a grin. "I'll be sure to keep that in mind."
"Great!" Toph exclaimed, punching a fist into her open palm. "Now c'mon. You didn't come yesterday, so I'm itching for a good fight."
Zuko arched his only brow, already drawing his swords. "How did you even survive without me?"
"Honestly, Scruffy?" Toph asked, taking up her stance. "Sometimes I have no idea."
Yeah. Sometimes he know how he'd managed either.
"How about tonight?"
Zuko lifted his head, looking over towards the lanterns. He could feel his inner flame flicker in response, stronger than it had been when he'd been denying his own bending, but still weak. He'd taken up his morning meditation again, properly this time- in front of a candle and everything, albeit one he'd lit by mundane methods.
It was helping. Maybe.
He felt... somewhat less squeamish about fire compared to where he'd been when he'd first been hired by the Beifongs. He still didn't think he'd be shooting fire blasts any time soon, but he felt less repulsed by the idea of actually creating his own fire.
He hadn't done it though, not yet. Mentally, he felt ready, but physically? Every time he tried to make fire, it still sputtered out in his hands, not even getting far enough to create smoke. But instead of resigning himself to it, like he had in the not so distant past, he was starting to get frustrated.
Which was... probably a good sign? He'd take it as one at least.
Closing his eyes, Zuko reached out to the flames. They were so tiny that he could fit them all into his palms, and even combined they wouldn't amount to much. He didn't feel as scared, he realized.
Maybe it was just a good day. Or maybe something was starting to change.
"Okay," Zuko said slowly, opening his eyes, "-I think I'm ready."
Not to create flame, not yet. But he could, at least, snuff out the existing flame- and on purpose this time.
"You want to try holding my hand?" Toph offered, not a hint of mockery in her tone.
Zuko looked towards her outstretched hand, before slowly taking it. She gave his a squeeze, a genuine smile on her face. Exhaling, Zuko turned towards the lanterns again, calling out to the dozen little flames that danced inside of them. Drawing in a long breath, he took them under his own power, but instead of recoiling as he had in the past, he held them there, letting himself feel their energy.
Part of him had expected it to be searing hot, like the flames that had branded his face. But instead they were just... warm, almost reassuring. Little beacons of light in the darkness, not there to harm, but to help.
Maybe fire didn't have to be all about destruction, he realized.
With one long exhale, he snuffed the candles out.
He visited the artisan's street once more after that, under the guise of looking for a present for Toph again. In reality, he'd just gone to feel the craftsmen's fires, as much a tool of their trade as the earth and metal that they used to create their craft was. Without fire, they would be unable to create anything, their craft never taking its final shape.
He didn't do anything with their fires, of course. He just... felt them.
Felt- and listened. They spoke to him of hard working men and women, sweat clinging to their brows as they worked long hours to perfect a single piece. They tended to their fires, knowing their eccentricities just as well as any firebender- what temperature they needed to maintain, how to work dying embers to bring a dying flame back to life. He felt their pride when a piece came out exactly- or better- than they had hoped, and their disappointment, sorrow, and anger when things went wrong.
Maybe fire could create.
(He also bought the Blue Spirit mask, but that was completely unrelated to anything.)
He did not, however, succeed in finding a present for Toph.
On occasion, there were things he knew from his previous life in the Fire Nation that he should have known would carry over to noble Earth Kingdom life, but failed to realize until he actually saw them in action. He wasn't sure what the disconnect was- maybe it was because he was used to being on the other side, as part of the nobility, rather than the servant he was now.
Fancy servant robes were one of those things.
Back in the Fire Nation, whenever there was a big social function at the palace, the servants would all wear fancier robes. Even the guards wore fancier armor than usual, depending on the event. They had at his father's coronation celebration, despite the fact that it had been thrown together in something of a rush.
(There had been a party when he'd turned thirteen, too. Somehow he doubted his fourteenth would be marked by the same kind of festivities.)
But back to the robes. He knew that they were a thing, sure- he just never expected to be wearing one. Compared to his usual servant's wear, it was made of finer material, the usual pale green trim replaced with gold, more intricate needlework having been put into the outer robe. It was also heavier and harder to move in, but nothing that he couldn't make work.
It also made him feel like an idiot.
"I think you look great, Scruffy!" Toph chirped, her usual wide grin plastered on her face.
Zuko just snorted. "Thanks. That's very reassuring. You look, uh..."
"Like a poofed up poodle-monkey?" Toph asked, striking a pose so ridiculously at odds with the fancy getup her servants had spent the past half hour getting her dressed up in, that he couldn't help but laugh. "Because that's how I feel."
"It's not that bad." Zuko told her. "It's just... a little much in places."
And here he thought the formal robes he'd been forced to wear were a little much. They were nothing in comparison to the ornate gown and headdress Toph's mother had commissioned for her daughter- and that wasn't even touching on the shawl, with its delicate flower patterns so carefully sewn in.
"I feel like, ten pounds heavier." Toph remarked.
"Considering you only weigh like five pounds-"
Toph stomped her foot, causing the earth under his feet to shake, effectively cutting him off before he could finish. He glowered at her to no effect.
"Now then," Toph said, raising her head high and holding out her elbow, "-shall my brave guard escort me to my banquet? I would simply hate to miss anything."
Zuko smirked, taking her arm without hesitation. "You just want the food."
"A distinct possibility." Toph said. "So, ready to glare some future suitors into submission?"
Zuko arched his brow, his smirk growing. "Do you even need to ask?"
The now ten year old Toph only cackled in response.
His first formal introduction to polite Earth Kingdom society involved a lot of glaring.
It felt fitting, somehow.
She didn't even wait until they got to the cavern to start letting off steam.
Li just watched, amused, as she created a tidal wave of earth, one that ripped through the forest all while neatly avoiding any trees. She let out a whoop, confident that they were far away enough from the manor so that she wouldn't attract any attention.
"...been holding that in for awhile?" Li asked.
She didn't even deny it, just flopping on her back so she could lie in the dirt. "Ahh, that's the stuff."
"You know," Li began, looming over her in a way that would probably be intimidating if she didn't know for a fact that he was actually just a huge loser, "-if your mother could see you now, the noises she would make would be unimaginable."
Toph grinned, making no move to pull herself up from the dirt. "Oh, I think I can imagine them just fine."
She could, actually. She was well aquatinted with her mother's array of high-pitched, indignant squeaks. Li probably needed to be around for awhile longer before he picked up on them all. He'd only been here for- huh. He'd been here for nearly half a year now, she abruptly realized. He'd shown up in late spring, and it was firmly fall now, so... yeah. A little over half a year, actually.
Weird. It didn't feel like it had even been that long. Maybe she'd just gotten so used to his presence here that she'd stopped thinking about it.
"Something wrong?" Li asked, crouching down beside her. "You went quiet."
"Nah, just thinking." Toph said, pushing herself up with her elbows. "Speaking of which, there's something I've been meaning to ask."
"Where's my birthday present?"
Li flinched, that much made painfully obvious by the nervous stutter his heart did. "I- uh, I don't- that is, I meant to get you one, I even went shopping for it and everything, but I couldn't- there wasn't anything that you would like and what you would like was totally out of my price range, so I kind of... didn't get you one?"
He finished his ramble with an audible wince.
"Relax, Scruffy." Toph said, sitting up properly. "I'm not mad. Just having you around is present enough already."
"It is?" Li asked. He didn't have to sound so surprised about it. "I mean, uh- thanks. But I still should have gotten you something."
"That's okay." Toph said. "I'm sure you'll make it up next year."
"Maybe." Li said, not sounding very convinced. "But at least I can help you blow off some steam, right?"
Toph grinned, offering Li her hand. "You sure can."
Li took it without hesitation, hauling her to her feet. "Functions suck, huh?"
"The worst." Toph agreed. "That chair was so high I could only touch the ground with my toes and even then only barely."
She didn't think her parents had done it on purpose. They didn't even know about her earth sense. But it had made her feel every inch the helpless blind girl that they thought she was.
"Was it really that bad?" Li asked.
"Eh, it could have been worse." She said truthfully. "I mean, I had you there, right?"
"Yeah," he said after some hesitation, "-I guess you did."
Toph smiled- before punching Li square in the arm. He rubbed where she'd hit, but he hadn't even so much as flinched this time. Which honestly? That was enough of a birthday present in and of itself.
"Okay, that's enough sappy stuff for tonight." She said, striding forward without waiting for Li to follow. "I'm the birthday girl, and I say the day isn't complete until we've beaten the snot out of each other in the ring."
Li snorted, but trailed behind her. "If I'd known all I needed to make you happy was to let you beat me up, I wouldn't have spent so much time looking for a present."
"Now you're starting to get me, Scruffy." Toph said. "Who knows? Maybe by the time your birthday rolls around, you'll have your firebending back. Then we can really duke it out."
Behind her, Li came to a dead stop. She winced, wondering if she'd said the wrong thing. After all, it had been in some kind of fire duel that he'd been burnt so badly by his father. And sure, she knew that Li would never hurt her, but did Li know that? He'd been making progress, but what if she'd just managed to set him back?
She was just about to turn around and apologize, when Li finally spoke.
"Actually," he said, "-I think there might be a present I can give you."
Toph blinked, because that wasn't the response she had been expecting at all. But hey, she'd take it.
"Yeah?" Toph asked, turning around even though she didn't really need to. "What is it?"
Li shifted awkwardly on his feet, before he took several steps forward until they were almost face to face. Or more like face to chest, given their height difference. She waited expectantly, while Li got over whatever hang-ups he had about whatever it was he was planning on doing. He drew in a deep breath, cupping his palms before slowly exhaling- and that was when it finally clicked.
"Okay," he mumbled, more to himself, "-here goes everything."
She waited, almost holding her breath as Li drew in another breath. At first, nothing happened- and then suddenly, everything did.
She couldn't see the flame cupped in Li's hands, fragile and weak, like it would go out with even the tiniest bit of wind. But they were close enough that she could feel it. The flame was small, no bigger than that of a candle's, but it was warm, standing out against the slight chill the autumn air brought with it.
And it was Li's.
Toph beamed, carefully placing her hands under Li's own. The flame flickered as she touched him, but instead of going out, it just grew stronger. Steadier.
"I take back what I said earlier." Toph said. "This is the best birthday present you could have gotten me."
Li exhaled, but his flame still didn't go out.