Chapter 1: toph
"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.
Chapter 2: zuko
Maybe his father had been right when he'd said that he was just lucky to be born. How else would he explain that the one day of the year he actually got sick, it would be his birthday?
Hello all, I'm back from vacation and am here with a new chapter! Okay, so I got back from vacation last week, but this one was fighting me all the way. But! I finally got it just the way I liked it, so it was worth all the struggle in the end. Hopefully though, the next update of heart of a dragon will come out a little quicker than this did. I at least want to get it done in time for my birthday the week after next if nothing else!
As always, thanks for reading!
He was sick.
Truthfully, he'd known that much since yesterday, but it hadn't been as serious then. He'd just been slightly warmer than usual, and as such, hadn't thought much of it. If he was also a little unsteady on his feet, well- it wasn't like that was anything new. Just because he'd mostly adjusted to being half blind didn't mean everything was perfect. Toph had even asked, but he'd assured her he was fine, and she'd believed it because he'd believed it.
Or had believed it enough, anyways.
Today, however, there was no denying it. He was definitely sick.
The sun had already risen by the time he woke. That was the first sign that something was off- he rose with the sun, not after it. The next sign was how just the simple act of sitting up caused his vision to swim, a wave of nausea bubbling up in the back of his throat that he had to swiftly fight back.
Groaning, Zuko placed a hand on his forehead. He was hot to the touch, even for a firebender, but there were no shakes and shivers that were normally associated with a fever.
Fire sickness, then. It wasn't his first experience with the phenomena, though the last time he'd gotten sick like this, it was back when he was still young and was just learning to firebend for the first time. If there were ever a time for a reoccurrence, it would be now, when he was learning to firebend all over again.
He exhaled, steam escaping from his mouth in an attempt to lower his temperature. He supposed he should count himself lucky it wasn't a real sickness. Fire sickness would fade soon enough on its own- he didn't even need to rest, not really. Sure, it would fade faster with rest, but that didn't mean he had to.
Besides, today was an important day. He wanted to spend it with Toph. He couldn't do that if he was confined to his bed.
Besides, it wasn't like he rested when he was actually sick anyways. He always just powered through it. His father took sickness as a sign of weakness, and the last thing he had wanted was to look weak.
(Azula never got sick.)
Staggering to his feet, Zuko forced his nausea down. He'd be fine.
Thankfully, the baths were empty by the time he got there. He hastily washed, changing into his servant's robes, before stumbling back to his room. Though the fire sickness didn't bring with it any chills, he shivered anyways, the howling winter wind outside a reminder of just how cold it was outside the thick walls of the servant's quarters. He'd been provided with thicker robes and better boots, but sometimes it didn't feel like it was enough. It never got this cold in the Fire Nation, even at the height of winter.
It had actually snowed last week. Snowed. He'd never seen snow before in his life. If he'd gotten a little carried away with it... well, Toph had been the only one around to see. And in snow? She was blind as well... herself, or at least a version of her that wasn't such an amazing earthbender.
She couldn't see anything in the snow, she'd complained. It was all water, and frozen water at that- which meant just the act of stepping in it was enough to make her regret her barefoot lifestyle, however briefly. He'd had to carry her piggyback to their usual spot- she didn't let him put her down until he had melted all of the snow around them.
He hadn't complained. It was good firebending practice, if nothing else.
Grabbing his swords, Zuko slung them over his back. If he had to pause to catch himself on the wall, it was no big deal. Shaking off the brief moment of unsteadiness, he made his way to the kitchen. At least he didn't have any morning chores- especially since entering the kitchen made him realize exactly why the baths had been so empty despite the post-dawn hour.
Usually he was the first person to wake up. Today he was the last.
"Li?" Xia-Su looked up as he entered, almost immediately frowning. "Everything okay? It's not like you to be late."
"I'm fine." Zuko lied. "Just slept in for a change."
Xia-Su arched a brow, exchanging a look with Yun. The older man frowned back, briefly tugging on his mustache before he turned his gaze on him. In response, Zuko stood up straighter, trying to ignore the wave of nausea that the aroma of food had prompted.
Guess he'd go easy on breakfast today.
"You sure that's all it is?" Yun asked. "You're looking a little flushed."
Zuko blinked, absently touching his right cheek. Shit. Was he? He hadn't exactly stopped to look in a mirror- not surprising, since he tended to avoid them. Just because he'd accepted the reality of his scar, didn't mean that he liked looking at it.
"Just got out of the bath." Zuko said. "That's all."
Yun and Xia-Su exchanged another glance, before they both glanced in the direction of Old Lady An, who then turned to look at him. He flinched underneath the old woman's scrutinizing gaze. It was intense even under normal circumstances, but today it felt as if she was looking right through him. It was all he could do to hold it, all while forcing himself to remain upright.
The last thing he wanted was for them to find out he was sort-of sick. He knew what would happen if they did- they'd insist that he rested, and then they'd probably insist that he should let them take care of him, even though they all had their own jobs. They didn't get paid if they didn't work, and if there was one thing he'd learned since being tossed out on his own, it was the importance of a steady paycheck.
These people already did too much for him anyways.
Whatever she saw, it wasn't what he wanted her to see. Beckoning him with one hand, the old woman rose to her feet. He shifted on his feet, having half a mind to just grab his food and leave, but something prompted him forward instead. She gestured for him to bend down, and when he hesitated, she simply straightened her bent back as much as she could instead, placing her hand directly on his forehead.
His burning forehead.
(If he flinched a little, hopefully nobody noticed.)
Her brows shot up, the old woman snatching her hand away as if it had been literally burned. Something twisted in his gut, a momentary spike of panic shooting through him, wondering if she actually had been- before the logical part of him caught up, reminding him that was impossible. Firebenders could do a lot of things, but they couldn't shoot fire from their foreheads. That was just stupid.
Besides, he could barely shoot fire anyways. In the two months since Toph's birthday, he'd managed to create steady flames- even hot ones- but he was still a long ways off from using his firebending combatively, much to Toph's joking frustration.
(She wasn't actually upset, he knew. She just liked teasing him.)
Old Lady An's hand wasn't burned. But she'd definitely realized he was burning.
"You," she said firmly, "-have a fever."
The effect of her words was almost immediate. At once, the already quiet table went silent. Then just as abruptly, Xia-Su was on her feet- surprisingly fast for someone with a limp.
"He has a fever." Old Lady An repeated. "A bad one, too."
Xia-Su glared at him almost accusingly. "You're sick?"
"It's not a fever." Zuko said, which wasn't technically a lie. "I just run hot."
"Not that hot." Old Lady An said. "Come now, back to your room. You need to rest."
Zuko felt himself bristle, even as part of him wanted to take the old woman's offer. "It's just a small fever. I can still work."
"I thought you said you didn't have a fever." Yun observed.
Zuko shot him a dirty look. It didn't work.
"Maybe you can," Xia-Su said, "-but that doesn't mean you should. You'll only get worse if you don't rest."
Zuko huffed, crossing his arms in front of him. "I've pushed through worse before."
And that was apparently the wrong thing to say, because instantly, the assembled servants' faces went from mildly concerned to deeply worried. He winced, wishing he could take it back, but he knew it was already too late. Nothing he could say now would smooth it over.
"That settles it." Yun said, rising to his feet. "You're taking the day off."
"Nope." Xia-Su cut him off, just as firm. "Come on. Yun and I will walk you back to your room."
He opened his mouth to protest again, but one look from Old Lady An cut him off. Snapping his mouth shut, Zuko stared down at the floor, realizing that this wasn't a fight he could win.
And that just maybe, it was a fight he shouldn't be fighting at all.
"We'll make sure she knows." She promised. "Someone will have to inform Lord Beifong you're too sick to work anyways."
Something that wasn't simply the nausea twisted his gut. It was difficult to discern just where he stood with Toph's father- her mother seemed to like him well enough, or at least, she was sympathetic to what she thought his plight was- but it still felt like her father was looking for an excuse to get rid of him. Toph had assured him that probably wasn't the case, but it was that probably he couldn't help but worry about.
It was with an abrupt sense of clarity that he realized he didn't want to have to leave this place, and even more abruptly, that it wasn't just because Toph was here.
The thought was pushed away in the next second, as Xia-Su laid a soft hand on his right shoulder. He twitched at the touch, but managed to keep from flinching further when she touched his other shoulder, carefully turning him so that he faced the door.
"Come on," she said softly, "-let's go back to your room."
He opened his mouth to protest one more time, only for no sound to come out. Closing it, he slowly nodded, letting the pair of servants guide him back to his room. Fine, if they were going to be so stubborn about it, he'd give them one day of rest.
But that didn't mean he had to like it.
Maybe his father had been right when he'd said that he was just lucky to be born. How else would he explain that the one day of the year he actually got sick, it would be his birthday?
So much for spending the day with Toph.
Li's skin was hot to the touch.
That should be a given, seeing as he had a fever, but she could feel his warmth even through his thick robes. And while it was true that Li ran warm- which made him pleasant to stand next to in cold weather- he didn't typically run this warm.
Frankly, Xia-Su was just surprised he hadn't simply combusted.
She frowned, her gaze briefly darting over her shoulder towards Li. Yun had taken up the rear, just in case Li stumbled and fell over, but he was doing a surprisingly good job of not doing that for someone who was so clearly unsteady. She'd be impressed, if it wasn't clear it was from experience. He'd said it so easily, as if pushing through a sickness was something normal and expected- something everyone did.
He hadn't needed to admit it. She knew the signs.
(Her father had never believed her when she said she was sick. She knew.)
"I don't need an escort," he'd muttered as they'd led him out of the kitchen.
She'd firmly argued otherwise.
As they closed in on his room, Xia-Su quickened her own pace. Usually it was difficult for her to walk quickly, but Li's own halting pace made it possible for her to reach the door before he did, sliding it open so that he could enter without any obstruction. Yun helped him remove his swords, carefully placing them against the wall near where he slept, where he always kept them. He made sure they wouldn't fall over before letting them go- not that either of them thought that would be enough to actually damage them, but still. They were precious to Li, one of the few pieces of his life from before that he still had.
A pair of twin dao and a knife. Barely anything at all. Even she'd had more to her name when she had left her village- and all of its bad memories- behind.
(Both weapons, some tiny part of her always noted. The thought never sat well with her.)
Li shifted on his feet, stubbornly refusing to sit down, much less lie down, like he really ought to. She glanced towards him, then glanced towards Yun, who arched a brow, ignoring the sound of protest Li made as he dug in his things, producing his sleepwear and shoving it towards him.
"Come on," Yun said, "-let's get you changed, kid."
Li flushed, his eyes darting briefly over towards her. She gave him a quick smile, hastily ducking out of the room to give them some privacy. He didn't have anything to be embarrassed about, really. Even if she did look at men that way, which she didn't, Li was a child. She couldn't think of him as anything other than a particularly stubborn and prickly baby brother.
"I don't need your help either," she could hear Li grumble from inside, "-I can change my own damn clothes."
"I'm sure you can." Yun said. "But let me give you a hand with the outer layer, at least."
Li audibly grumbled, but judging from the fact that it was several minutes until Yun joined her in the hall, he'd caved anyways. He must be sick, she decided, if he was actually letting people help him. Usually Li was so independent that it was an uphill battle just getting him to admit that he even needed it.
Given his obvious noble heritage, that felt... well, contradictory.
(And he had to have been noble, once. There was no other reason to explain how he could be that bad at doing simple chores.)
"Let us know when you're done so we can tuck you in!" Yun shouted through the door, ignoring the don't antagonize him elbow jab she gave his ribs.
"I can tuck myself in!" Li shouted right back, with a surprising amount of volume given how sick he was.
It wasn't just how hot his skin was that gave it away. His usually pale cheeks were flushed red, sweat pasting his newly grown in bangs to his forehead. His usually bright eyes were glazed and distant, his voice raspy- at least, more raspy than usual, though that part might admittedly just be puberty. It was amazing that he thought he could even fool them, and it seemed testament to how little the people who had once been around him must have cared that they had been.
(That too, felt awfully contradictory.)
Yun exchanged a glance with her, giving her a cheeky grin. She rolled her eyes, barely restraining herself from elbowing him a second time. Honestly. Sometimes Yun acted far more like a child than she ever did- or Li did, for that matter.
She wished that were different- but if there was one thing she could understand, it was having to grow up way too fast. Sometimes childhood had to take a backseat to surviving.
"Well, you better be done," Yun called out, "-because I'm coming in anyways!"
In spite of what he said, Yun waited several more seconds before sliding open the door, giving Li plenty of time to finish changing. By the time Yun actually opened the door, he was already lying down with his thick winter blanket already pulled over him, almost like a shield.
"There, see? I'm in bed." Li said, glaring rather impressively for someone so flushed. "You can leave me alone now."
"Hm, I don't know." Yun stroked his mustache thoughtfully, glancing over towards her. "What do you think? Can we leave the kid alone?"
Li shifted his glare towards her, which would have been a lot more effective if she hadn't seen him babytalking to a stray kitten once. Given how red his face had turned when he looked up to see her, he definitely hadn't thought anyone was watching.
Honestly, she couldn't understand how anyone could ever be afraid of Li. He was about as scary as the aforementioned kitten.
"Of course not." Xia-Su said firmly. "He's sick. Someone needs to take care of him."
"I can take care of myself." Li protested.
"Given that your idea of taking care of yourself seemed to be pushing yourself," Xia-Su countered, in what she hoped was her best big sister voice, "-I find that hard to believe."
Li clearly didn't have anything to say to that, because he just resorted to glaring at her some more. It hadn't worked the first time, but that never seemed to deter him in the least. She had to applaud his tenacity.
Then finally, he looked away, clutching at his blanket in a way that just made her want to take care of him more. "You both have work. I can't keep you here."
"I think Lord and Lady Beifong can go without a dedicated tea server for one day." Yun shrugged.
"And we don't have any guests arriving for the next few days, so there's no real need for every single housemaid." Xia-Su said simply. "It's not like you're a burden."
Li's good eye briefly widened, before he ducked his head, leaving only his burnt side visible. It was set in a permanent scowl, that entire side of his face transformed by the violence that had been inflicted on him. Even after all this time, it was hard to look at- not because of how it made him look- she barely noticed the disfigurement anymore- but because of what it meant.
(At the end of the day, her leg had ultimately been an accident. Li's scar, burned in the shape of a handprint, could have only ever been deliberate.)
"Do what you want." Li finally said, rolling over so that his back was turned to them. "I'm going to get some sleep."
Xia-Su exchanged a glance with Yun, smiling. He returned the expression.
Once the spring thaw began, it would be a year since Li had come here. A year ago, Li would have never agreed to let them stay and look after him. A year ago, Li was skittish, wary of getting close to anyone, keeping everyone at an arms length like he was afraid that someone might hurt him if he let them close.
And now he was letting them see his back.
"Then," she said, "-we'll stay."
"We'll stay, she says," Yun muttered underneath his breath, "-and then she immediately sends me out of the room."
Sure, okay, he saw the need for it. Someone had to go and get some cool water and rags and it might as well be the person who was less likely to spill it. But still. For someone who was only a scant handful of years older than Li, Xia-Su sure could be bossy.
(Of course, he was the one letting himself be bossed around by a teenage girl, so what did that say about him?
Well, mostly that he wasn't a jerk. Said teenage girl usually knew what she was doing.)
Balancing the water bucket on his hip, Yun knocked on the door. "Got the water."
Xia-Su opened it a few moments later, giving him a faint smile. "Thanks."
"No problem." Yun said, carefully setting the bucket down. "Ran into Old Lady An in the hallway while getting the stuff. Said she reported Li's predicament to Miyuki."
Xia-Su made a face, like she'd forgotten about that step herself. Which, fair- he'd kind of blanked on it too. Thank the spirits for old women.
"She said she relayed the fact that we would be taking some time off too." Yun added, crouching down by the bucket and removing one of the rags he had grabbed from his robe. "Always thinking one step ahead, that old lady."
"Do you think Lord Beifong will grant our requests?" Xia-Su asked, kneeling back down near Li's bedroll. "I mean, I know he'll grant Li's, but..."
Speaking of Li, the kid must have been exhausted, because he'd already fallen asleep. He'd conked out so quickly that he'd almost thought he was faking it at first, but no- he was well and truly asleep. And to think he'd actually wanted to try and push through his sickness. He knew the kid was stubborn, but that was a little too stubborn, even for him.
Still, he had to admit, it was nice to see him looking so peaceful for a change. Even his scar seemed smoother somehow, less angry now that he wasn't actively scowling.
"Don't see why not." Yun said, dipping the rag in the water. "Li's just a kid, after all, and Lord Beifong is a reasonable man. I'm sure he'll understand."
Squeezing the excess water from the rag, he passed it to Xia-Su. She placed it as carefully on his forehead as she could, but the kid still flinched. Thankfully, it wasn't enough to wake him up. Exhaling, Xia-Su glanced over towards him. He shrugged, removing the rest of the rags he had taken from his robe and setting them aside for later use. He wouldn't want anyone to come anywhere near his face either, if he had a burn like that.
"So... you know what you're doing?" Yun asked.
Xia-Su shot him a look. "I helped out at a healer's hut for several months."
Yun arched a brow. "Can't help but notice that's not a yes."
Xia-Su narrowed her eyes. "I know enough."
"So in other words... no." Yun said.
"If you're just going to be noisy, you can leave." Xia-Su huffed.
"Hey, I said I'd stay, didn't I?" Yun said, holding up his hands. "I'm a man of my word."
Xia-Su just stared at him for a few seconds longer, before she heaved another sigh. Pulling her legs out from under her into a more comfortable position, she lightly rubbed her right ankle. He couldn't help but eye it, his gaze flickering towards the window. Outside the winter winds were howling, though the snow that the clouds had been threatening for days now didn't seem inclined to fall today either.
Probably for the best. Xia-Su's leg always ached when it snowed.
If Li's scar did, he didn't show it.
"You should take a short break. Go finish eating." Yun told her. "Maybe rub some of that cream the healer gave you on your ankle."
Xia-Su opened her mouth to protest, but he just held her gaze. These kids might be stubborn as could be, but he was a proper man of Earth himself, and could damn well be more stubborn than the both of them if he wanted to be. And he knew for a fact that Xia-Su had barely gotten in two bites of food before Li had come stumbling into the kitchen, sick as could be.
And she'd almost definitely put too much weight on it when she'd stood up so quickly. He knew from experience that was never good.
"Fine," Xia-Su finally said, "-but I'll be back soon. And my ankle's fine."
"If you say so." Yun said. "Now go, before your stomach wakes the kid."
Xia-Su opted not to dignify that with a response, instead getting up and limping towards the door. She paused, briefly glancing back at Li, before finally leaving.
"Stubborn kid." Yun shook his head, glancing back down at Li. "And you're the most stubborn kid of all."
Li said nothing in response to that, probably because he was asleep. Leaning against the wall, Yun folded his arms in front of him, ready to be here for the long haul. Not that he minded. Someone had to look after the kid. Preferably someone who wasn't also a kid.
Damn war had babies looking after babies. Wasn't right.
Well, maybe he couldn't do anything about the war. But he could look after one sick kid, while making damn sure the other kid didn't run herself ragged trying to take care of him. Because he knew that if he let her, Xia-Su would absolutely do just that. Nevermind that trying to push past his limits was exactly what she was so upset at Li about.
He huffed again. Oma and Shu, he really was just surrounded by the Earth Kingdom's most stubborn kids.
Zuko barely caught a glimpse of the fluttering deep red cloak before it vanished. He knew that cloak. How couldn't he, when it had been burned into his memory?
His voice echoed in the empty air, sounding so much younger than he remembered it being. Looking down at his hands, he realized that he was younger. His hands hadn't been this small since he was eleven- before his family truly started falling apart, his cousin and grandfather dead and his mother vanished.
(Azula, taunting him in the night, cheerfully declaring their father was going to kill him.)
"Mom?" He called again, taking a step forward, then another. "Mom, where are you?"
Turning on his heel, the world around him shifted, transforming from an inky blackness to the familiar halls to the Fire Palace. Again, he just barely caught a glimpse of his mother's cloak as she turned a corner, just out of his reach.
"Mom!" He called out, hurrying after her, only dimly aware that his legs were longer now, of the way the armor he wore clinked as he ran. "Mom, wait!"
He turned the corner, and the scene changed once more. A row of flames flickered in front of him, and he felt himself instinctively taking a step back, a surge of fear washing through him. His father's war room spread out in front of him, faceless generals all staring back at him.
He couldn't see his father, but he could feel his eyes.
He turned towards the sound of his mother's voice. It sounded more desperate this time, afraid. His left eye was hot, burning, the smell of melting flesh clogging his nostrils, as he realized his mother's call wasn't a scream for help, but one of warning.
It wasn't enough.
The Agni Kai chamber loomed before him.
"You will learn respect," his father's voice came from behind him, just as cruel as it had been on the day of his Agni Kai, "-and suffering will be your teacher."
He didn't turn around this time.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't help.
Letting the bowl of rice gruel slip through her fingers, Xia-Su bolted back towards Li's room as fast as her bad leg could carry her. She'd never heard Li scream like that before, and the mere sound of it sent a bolt of terror through her heart. She practically ripped the door off in her hurry to get inside, only to find Yun already hovering over him, clearly hesitant to actually touch him to wake him up.
She, however, had no such hesitation. Not now.
Grabbing his shoulders firmly, Xia-Su gave him a firm shake. "Li! Li, wake up!"
Li's eyes snapped open, their bright gold color hazy with something other than fever. He stared straight at her, but somehow, Xia-Su got the feeling that it wasn't her he was looking at.
She froze at the softness of his voice, biting back a comment that she was far too young to be mistaken for anyone's mother, especially Li's. Just like she had never heard him scream like that before, she'd never heard him sound so soft before either.
Then he blinked, the haze in his eyes clearing away.
She exhaled, slowly nodding. "It's me."
Li frowned, narrowing his eyes as he glanced from her face to her hands. Once he realized where they were touching, he flinched, and she instantly drew them away.
"What's," Li began, glancing at her in confusion, an expression which only deepened when he noticed Yun, "-what- what are you two even doing here?"
"Don't you remember?" Yun asked. "You have a fever. Xia-Su and I are taking care of you."
"Oh," Li's brow furrowed, as if he really was just remembering that, "-right. I remember."
She couldn't help but notice that he still sounded shaken, his face pale- even for him. Biting down on her lip, she debated asking about it, but as usual, Yun was always one step ahead of her when it came to painful bluntness.
"Sounds like you had quite the nightmare, kid." He said it so easily, even though she could still make out traces of fear in his eyes- an expression which was doubtlessly mirrored in those of her own. "Xia-Su could hear you all the way from the kitchen."
Li swallowed, looking away. "It's nothing. Just- just the fever."
"Didn't sound like just the fever to me." Yun said.
"Well it was." Li snapped, his temper flaring. "Look, I appreciate the concern, but I'm fine."
"You called for your mom." Xia-Su said softly.
Li flinched. "I said it's nothing."
Xia-Su exchanged a glance with Yun, before frowning, looking back down at Li. He was still stubbornly not looking at either of them, his right eye narrowed to the point where it was no longer asymmetrical with his left.
His knuckles, still clutching his blankets, were white.
She could only sigh, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Pressing him any further likely wouldn't do any good, even if she doubted it really was just because of the fever. They all knew that Li didn't sleep well- and even if he didn't say as much, it wasn't hard to guess that it was due in large part to bad dreams.
No, if the fever was responsible for anything, it was them hearing him for once.
She didn't like that thought at all.
But Li was also sick, and therefore vulnerable. And the more vulnerable he was, the less likely he was to actually open up to them. He might not be that same wary, distrustful kid he'd been when he'd first arrived here, but there were still shades of that- a wall that none of them, maybe not even the young miss of the house, could fully surmount.
Besides, stressing him out further wouldn't help him get better. Best to just drop it for now and let him rest.
"Alright," she finally said, "-if you say so. But just remember- if you need anything, at least one of us will always be right here."
Yun nodded in agreement. "So don't worry about a thing, kid."
"You really don't need to do that." Li just huffed, rolling his eyes. "I could do just fine on my own."
"So you told us." Yun said. "But you can't get rid of us that easy, kid. We're sticking around until that fever of yours is down."
Li grumbled, sinking further into his blankets until his face was barely visible underneath them. Yet, for all his stubborn bluster, his grip on them had grown far more lax- and she was pretty sure that was the edge of a smile on his lips she'd seen before his face had disappeared underneath the covers.
He really was a terrible liar.
He didn't know exactly how, but somehow, Li managed to fall back asleep after that. It was a fitful sleep, sure, but at least it looked more like the sleep of someone fighting a fever than it did someone fighting off bad dreams. Heaving a sigh, Yun glanced over towards Xia-Su. He made sure to keep his tone low- the last thing he wanted to do was to wake the kid.
"Troublesome kid, isn't he?"
"Really?" Xia-Su said, a hint of teasing in her voice. "I hadn't noticed."
He snorted quietly, biting back a comment that he wasn't the only troublesome kid around here. "You did remember to eat something yourself, right?"
Puffing out her cheeks, Xia-Su put her hands on her hips. "Of course. I know how to take care of myself."
Yun's lips quirked upwards, holding up his hands in mock defeat. "Never said that."
Xia-Su just sighed, glancing back down at Li. "Do you think we should get a healer after all? I know Li doesn't like strangers, but..."
He'd been turning that same question over in his head since he'd first seen the kid's flushed face, but in the end, he didn't think it was a good idea. Not unless he actually really needed one, at least- in which case, he'd just have to put up with a little bit of discomfort for the sake of his overall health.
Or a lot of discomfort, as the case might be for Li. But if they didn't have to put him through that, they wouldn't.
"I don't think it's a good idea." Yun said. "At least, not yet."
Xia-Su nodded in agreement, before glancing over her shoulder. He blinked, looking towards the door himself, abruptly realizing that they were far from alone. While most everyone had already gone to work, the few that hadn't were lingering outside, with Old Lady An at the forefront of the crowd.
"How is he?" She asked.
"He's sleeping again. I think the fever must be making him really tired." Xia-Su said, frowning a little. "You could have said something if you were there."
The old woman merely shrugged. "Didn't want to disturb."
Glancing back towards him, Xia-Su arched a brow. He returned it with a shrug, taking a seat next to Li's sleeping form. "You go on and finish up what you were doing. I'll look after him for a little longer."
Xia-Su nodded, pausing for the span of a few moments to look at Li, as if checking to make sure he hadn't slipped into another nightmare. Once she was satisfied that he hadn't, she made her way towards the door, the crowd parting to let her past, and largely dissolving once she'd left. Only Old Lady An lingered, watching him as he picked up the damp rag that had fallen off of Li's forehead during his nightmare.
It had barely even been half an hour, and it was already warm.
Yun merely shrugged, dipping the rag back into the bucket. Kid ran hot.
She wasn't usually the type to be caught off guard, but all Toph could do was stare in disbelief at her father's messenger. If her hearing weren't so sharp, she almost would have thought that she'd misheard him- because Li? Sick? She didn't even think he could get sick.
Then again, he'd frolicked like an idiot in the snow last week, and he'd been a little unsteady on his feet yesterday... maybe he really was sick, then.
There was a twinge of guilt at that realization. Surely she should have picked up on it earlier, if that were the case? She'd definitely noticed something, but Li had assured her that he was alright, and it hadn't felt like he was lying...
Then again, this was Li she was talking about. His definition of alright was clearly vastly different from that of her own.
Her father's messenger mumbled something about Li taking the day off to rest. Frankly that surprised her more than the fact that Li was sick. He wasn't exactly the resting type, even normally. Not only did he keep the same late night hours she did, but she also knew that his firebending butt rose with the sun- a concept that was utterly unthinkable to her.
Being awake before dawn? No thanks.
Which meant someone was making him rest. Which, hey- good on them. She knew from experience that making Li do something he didn't want to was no easy task. And there was no way that Li would actually want to rest, sick or otherwise. He hated staying still. Which wasn't to say he couldn't- he could stay very still if he wanted to. But if he didn't?
Then he didn't.
"Can I see him?" Toph asked, even though she already knew the answer.
Predictably, her father's messenger told her no. It would be awful if she caught whatever Li had, after all. She was so weak and fragile that even a mere cold would be enough to threaten her life.
Okay, so he didn't say that last part, but it was very strongly implied.
Oh well. It didn't really matter. One way or another, she'd find a chance to see him. She was an earthbender- patience was just one of her many finely honed skills.
That, and there was no way she was going to let Li be alone on his birthday.
"You don't need to do this."
Xia-Su just smiled at Li, shutting the door behind her. Yun had warned her that Li was awake when they'd traded off, so she'd been somewhat prepared for another barrage of Li's attempts to push them away.
"Maybe not," she said, "-but I want to."
Li huffed, turning his head so that he was staring at the ceiling instead of her. The sigh that escaped her was more bemused than anything, as she made her way over towards his side, setting down the bowl she had brought with her. It was hot in her hands, filled to the brim with Old Lady An's special rice gruel.
"Think you can eat something?" Xia-Su asked.
Li's stomach growled in response, causing him to flush even more.
"I'll just take that as a yes." Xia-Su said.
Li mumbled something underneath his breath, but nevertheless slowly worked himself out from the tangle of blankets. He propped himself up with his elbows, pushing away any of her attempts to help him sit up with a grumpy and extremely predictable I can do it myself.
"What is it?" Li asked, eyeing the bowl with a surprising degree of wariness. She hadn't seen him look that wary about food since he'd first started living here, eyeing every pot like he expected it to contain poison.
"Old Lady An's special rice gruel." Xia-Su replied. "She swears by it."
Li looked skeptical, only growing more so when she removed the lid. "It just looks like mush."
Xia-Su arched her brows. "You want me to tell her you said that?"
Li quickly paled. "I mean, it looks good?"
"That's better." Xia-Su smiled, taking the spoon and getting a spoonful of the gruel. She held it up to Li, who just glared at her.
"I can feed myself." He huffed, snatching the spoon from her hand. "I'm sick, not four."
"Of course you're not." Xia-Su said lightly. "You're thirteen."
Li frowned, looking at her strangely. "M'not thirteen."
Xia-Su blinked, staring at him in confusion. He didn't seem to notice, too busy chewing, apparently having realized that the rice gruel was neither poison nor disgusting.
"I thought you told Yun you were thirteen." Xia-Su said.
"I mean, I was." Li said. "Today's my birthday, actually."
All she could do was stare at him. He'd said it so easily, like it wasn't a big deal. She couldn't shake the sinking feeling that was exactly what he thought. The subject of Li's birthday was one that had come up among the servants- they always tried to hold small celebrations for one another- but none of them actually knew when it was. They'd all assumed that he'd tell them when it was getting close, but from the sound of it, if she hadn't brought up his age, he might never have mentioned it at all.
He would have just let it pass, unmarked and unnoticed.
And that was extremely unacceptable.
"I suppose I should wish you a happy birthday, then." Xia-Su said, hoping that he hadn't noticed her continued silence. "You're fourteen now, right?"
Li just nodded, still more focused on eating than he was on the conversation.
"I guess you wish it was happening under better circumstances, huh?" Xia-Su asked.
"Pretty much." Li admitted, briefly glancing over at her with a frown. "What is it?"
"Nothing!" Xia-Su said quickly. "I'm just... why didn't you tell us it was your birthday?"
Li tilted his head. "I did. Just now."
Which was fair, she supposed. He had indeed told her just now. But normally people mentioned their birthdays a little sooner than the day of.
"Well... is there anything you want?" Xia-Su asked.
"...to be let out of bed?" Li ventured.
Xia-Su's gaze sharpened. "Not happening."
Li clicked his tongue, muttering something underneath his breath that sounded a lot like worth a try. "Then not really, no."
Was there really nothing he wanted? Or was he just saying that because he didn't want to be a burden? Her heart sank at that thought. As stubborn as he was, she would have thought he would have realized how important he was to all of them by now.
And he was, whether he realized it or not. He was a part of their family- how could he possibly not be important?
This, Xia-Su resolved, was not something she could allow to continue.
"Are you finished?"
Setting down the bowl, Zuko nodded his head. He'd only eaten about half of the rice gruel, but his stomach was already protesting. The last thing he wanted to do was throw up, and give Xia-Su something else to fret over.
She didn't need to be fretting at all- her or Yun, or any of the other servants. It was bad enough that they'd all heard him having a nightmare- and he wasn't even going to touch on having apparently mistaken Xia-Su for his mom- but he didn't want to give them any further cause to worry about him. He really was fine- or he would be soon enough. Fire sickness would go away on its own. It always did.
Though, he guessed she didn't know that. She didn't even know it was fire sickness. And frankly, it was probably better to keep it that way. A sickness that only firebenders could get? Yeah, it was definitely better to keep something like that a secret.
At least they hadn't called for a healer. He'd heard them talking about it when he'd been pretending to sleep, but he was really glad they had decided against it. He didn't know if there were even any healers in the Earth Kingdom that could diagnose fire sickness, but he'd rather not take his chances.
As for they reason they had given...
...well, they weren't wrong. He wasn't found of strange people- or even people he knew- touching him. He'd expected that fear to fade as he slowly got used to his fire again, but it was still just as strong as ever. It made him feel kind of pathetic. Most people weren't his father, out to do him harm.
Most people were good and kind. Like Toph. Like Xia-Su and Yun, and all the other servants who lived here. Even Toph's parents had their own kind of kindness. He wouldn't be here if they didn't.
...he wondered if he was kind too.
Xia-Su's voice startled him out of his thoughts. Jerking his head up to look at her, she just gave him one of her usual smiles. "Can I take your bowl? I can keep it in the kitchen to warm it up later."
He opened his mouth to say that he could warm it up later himself, before catching himself. His heart pounded in his chest, internally cursing his own carelessness. He couldn't say something like that. Whatever happiness he had here, it was bound to end the moment these people found out that he was a firebender.
He couldn't give himself away.
"Sure," Zuko nodded, passing her the bowl, "-thanks."
"No problem." Xia-Su said, taking the bowl from him. "Then, you rest. I'll be right back."
He watched her go, before heaving a sigh and lying back down. He really didn't want to rest, but he guessed he had no choice. He had promised, after all.
Toph grinned to herself. She'd wanted to go straight to Li's room, but she could sense someone in there with him. So instead she'd opted to search for someone that she could grill for information- er, ask about Li's well being.
But also grill them for information.
She'd shifted her feet slightly to get a better look at the servant. He hadn't noticed her yet, too engrossed in drawing water from the well. She was just glad the snow from last week had cleared up, or she wouldn't be able to see him at all- or anything else, for that matter.
Ugh. She hated winter.
The servant, she determined, was one she knew- she recognized him as her family's tea server. Li had described him to her as having a dumb mustache, and had said his name was... Yun, she thought. And if Li talked about him...
Her grin widened. That made him the perfect person to pump for information.
In later retellings, Yun would leave out the fact that he'd nearly leapt out of his skin, flinging the bucket of water that he'd come to collect into the air. It thankfully managed to avoid splashing him- or the young lady of the house, for that matter.
That one would have definitely been worse.
"Miss Beifong!" Yun exclaimed, nervously glancing around to check if anyone was watching, only to find that there was no one around but the two of them. There was no sign of any guards, nor even a single maidservant or retainer.
It was just Lord Beifong's daughter.
Alone. By herself. Which she definitely wasn't supposed to be.
"That's me." Toph said, her voice surprisingly level. "How's Li?"
"I," Yun opened his mouth to reply, uncertain, "-he's resting. He's not feeling well today."
"So I've heard." Toph said- and he swore the edge of her mouth quirked upwards in a grin. "Can I see him?"
"I don't think," Yun frowned, shifting nervously on his feet, briefly wondering if this was some kind of test, "-I don't think your father would approve."
Toph narrowed her eyes, tilting her head so that she was looking in the general direction of his face. If he didn't know any better, it was as if she was trying to intimidate him.
Well, it was working.
Not that he'd give in. No sir, not him. He was a grown man, and she was a ten year old girl. He was not going to let a ten year old girl intimidate him. He got enough grief from Li and Xia-Su as it was already.
Eventually, Toph lowered her gaze- and he swore she clicked her tongue. Or maybe it was someone breaking a branch somewhere off in the distance. That would make more sense.
(All he could suddenly think about was how Li had wanted to buy a knife for her.)
"What's he sick with?" Toph asked. "I asked, but nobody would tell me."
"It seems to be a fever." Yun told her. "I'm sure it's nothing a day of rest can't cure."
Abrupt appearance aside, she'd probably just come because she was worried about her friend. He was certain Li would be delighted to hear that she'd come to check on him- though probably less delighted to hear that he'd turned her away.
But no. If Lord Beifong found out he'd let her in the same room as a sick person, he'd be fired for sure. He liked having a job, thanks.
"I can pass a message to him, if you want." Yun offered.
Toph tilted her head, seeming to consider this, before nodding. "Tell him he better get well soon."
That sound amazingly like a threat, Yun marveled.
"Oh," Toph added, "-make sure to tell him I said happy birthday too."
"I'll be sure to tell-," was all he managed to get out before what she'd said actually caught up with him. Opening his mouth, Yun could only gape for a few seconds, processing what he'd just been told.
Today was Li's birthday?
Today was Li's birthday, and he hadn't told them?
He was just about to ask Toph if she was sure, only to realize that she'd already left. He scanned the area for her, but failed to find the Beifong heiress anywhere. She'd vanished, seemingly in the blink of an eye, making him wonder if she'd ever actually been there at all. Though given that the alternative was him hallucinating his employer's daughter...
...yeah, she'd definitely been there, he quickly decided.
"I need to talk to you."
Xia-Su blinked, just as Yun did the same. It was fortunate that she'd run into him in the hall on her way back from putting away Li's bowl, but she hadn't expected the echo.
"You go first." Yun said.
Xia-Su nodded, taking in a deep breath. "It's Li's birthday."
Rather than look shocked, Yun just blinked. "You knew?"
"I just found out." Xia-Su said, frowning. "Wait, you knew?"
"I just found out!" Yun was quick to defend himself. "I met the little lady outside. She's the one who told me."
Xia-Su blinked again. "The young miss was here?"
"She came to check on Li, apparently." Yun told her. "She was worried."
In spite of herself, Xia-Su couldn't help but smile at that. It was obvious that Li cared about the young miss- he had fretted far too much about finding her a good present to not- but it was nice to know that the sentiment was apparently returned.
But she'd be lying if she wasn't a little jealous- and more than a little hurt- that Li had apparently told her today was his birthday, and not them. Did he really think they wouldn't care?
Well, that was just all the more reason to prove him wrong.
"We need to do something about this." Xia-Su said.
"What, about the little lady?" Yun asked.
"No, not about her." Xia-Su rolled her eyes. "About Li! We need to show him we care."
"We do care." Yun blinked. "What, does he not know that or something?"
"I don't know." Xia-Su admitted with a frustrated sigh. "He didn't tell us it was his birthday today. His birthday! We should have all celebrated it together, but he didn't even mention it."
"And you think that means he doesn't think we care?" Yun asked.
"Maybe." Xia-Su said. "Or maybe he just thinks he's not important enough."
"Well that's bull." Yun snorted. "Of course he is."
"Right." Xia-Su said. "Which is why we need to make sure he understands that."
Crossing his arms in front of him, Yun nodded. "Makes sense. So? What do we need to do to accomplish that?"
Xia-Su blinked, frowning. She hadn't actually thought that far ahead.
"I... suppose we could get him a present?" She suggested. "I don't think he expects to get anything, so a present might show that we think he means something."
And that he's worth something, she mentally added.
"What kind of present?" Yun asked. "It would have to be something he likes."
Her eyes narrowing in thought, Xia-Su rested a hand on her chin. What did they even know about what Li liked? He had so few personal possessions, that it was difficult to pin him down. Other than the single theater mask he'd hung on his wall as a decoration, and the swords and knife he'd had with him when he'd arrived, he really didn't have anything that was his. His clothes, maybe, but somehow a present of clothes didn't sound right.
"Spices?" She finally ventured, "-and masks."
Yun snorted. "Spices and masks."
Xia-Su just glared at him. "Then what do you think he likes?"
Yun very purposefully did not meet her eyes. "...swords?"
"Swords." Xia-Su repeated, before heaving a deep sigh. "Anything else?"
"...theater scrolls?" Yun suggested.
"Well, it's better than swords." Xia-Su admitted. "But what if we just got him something he hates? What if he took it the wrong way?"
"I think you may be overthinking this." Yun said. "Weren't you the one who said it's the thought that counts?"
"That was then, and this is now." Xia-Su glared at him, before heaving a long sigh. "At least if we had some idea of what he wanted..."
A vague image flickered in her mind's eye, causing her to blink. Narrowing her eyes, she tried to recall just what it was. If she recalled, during their shopping trip with Li...
"You have an idea?" Yun's voice broke her from her thoughts.
"Maybe." Xia-Su said, still somewhat uncertain. "Do you remember when we took him to the artisan's street?"
"How could I forget?" Yun asked. "He tried to buy the little lady a knife."
"And you tried to suggest buying her alcohol." Xia-Su pointed out. "Anyways, that's not the point. Do you remember the first shop we went to?"
"The pottery shop?" Yun asked. "What about it?"
"Do you think they still have that teacup?" Xia-Su asked.
"Teacup?" Yun asked, before seemingly remembering. "The one with the red flowers?"
Xia-Su nodded. "He seemed to like it."
At least, she thought he did. The look on his face... it had almost been nostalgic. But he'd set the cup down so quickly when she'd called out to him, that she couldn't be sure. But he did say he liked the design...
Yun hummed in consideration, stroking his mustache. "Well, it's better than more spices. You'd swear that kid had a Fire tongue."
Xia-Su snorted, but didn't deny it. "Don't tell Yang that. He'll take it the wrong way."
He was already convinced that Li was some kind of Fire Nation spy. None of them were exactly about to volunteer information that might make him think he was actually right. It was why she kept silent about the color of his eyes, and the way they reminded her of the soldier that had carried her to the healer's that night almost five years ago now.
And if his hands had twitched as if he had wanted to touch his scar when she'd mentioned her father, well, that was a secret between survivors, not something to be shared.
"Wouldn't dream of telling that bastard anything." Yun said. "I'll head down to the shop now. Maybe I can get something for Li's fever while I'm out too."
Xia-Su nodded. "Good plan."
"You be sure to keep an eye on him." Yun said. "I get the feeling he's going to become even more of a handful once he actually starts getting better."
Xia-Su laughed. That was far too easy to see. They might not know that much about who Li was, or where he had come from, but they certainly still knew him. And if there was one thing they had learned about Li, it was that he was as stubborn as they came.
And frankly, she wouldn't have it any other way.
Blinking awake, Zuko frowned. He didn't even remember falling asleep, but he must have. That was the only explanation for why the sun had already set.
Beside him, someone stirred. He tensed, reaching for the knife he kept hidden underneath his pillow, only to relax once they called out to him, recognizing the voice as Xia-Su's.
"Li?" She asked. "Are you awake?"
Guess she hadn't been kidding about staying by his side.
He nodded, pushing himself up into a sitting position. His vision didn't swim this time, he noticed. Placing a hand on his forehead, he realized that his temperature was back to normal. His fever was gone.
The fire sickness had passed.
"How's the fever?"
Zuko started a bit, glancing in the other direction, surprised to find that Yun there. Guess they both hadn't been kidding about staying by his side, then.
"Better." Zuko said. "I think it's gone now."
"Really?" Xia-Su asked, holding out her hand with a questioning tilt of her head. "Is it alright if I check?"
Zuko bit his lip, before nodding his head. Xia-Su smiled, resting her hand against his forehead, careful to avoid touching his scar. Her hands were chapped and dry, and he couldn't stop his heartbeat from picking up at the simple touch.
"You're right," Xia-Su said, pulling her hand away, "-it's back to normal."
"So does that mean I can stop resting?" Zuko ventured. It couldn't be that late. Maybe he could still catch up with Toph.
"Not a chance." Xia-Su said firmly. "When you're just about recovered is the most time dangerous time for fevers."
Zuko opened his mouth to protest, before his own stomach cut him off, loudly growling. He felt his cheeks heat up, ducking his head in embarrassment. With his fever gone, his nausea had vanished too- which meant he was back to being hungry. Come to think of it, all he'd eaten today was half a bowl of rice gruel...
Yun, damn him, let out a bark of laughter. "I think the kid's hungry."
"I think you might be on to something there." Xia-Su teased. "Hold on a minute. We still have some rice gruel left. I'll go heat it up."
"I'll help." Yun said, getting to his feet. "Don't you go anywhere kid."
Zuko only nodded, too embarrassed to look up. Thankfully, they pretty quickly. Exhaling, he glanced towards the door, briefly entertaining the thought of leaving while they were both gone.
Then his stomach growled again, and he quickly dismissed it. Food first.
They returned soon enough, Yun carrying a tray that contained a bowl of rice gruel and a teapot- but curiously enough, no teacup. He set them down next to him, crouching down to pick up the teapot, only to blink, as if only now realizing his mistake.
"Huh," he said, "-there's no teacup here."
"There sure isn't." Xia-Su said, her tone more than a little strange. "What should we do about it?"
Glancing up at her, he couldn't help but notice that she seemed to be hiding something behind her back. Arching a brow, he glanced back down to Yun, who almost seemed to be smirking.
Was this a prank? Was he being pranked?
"Well," Yun said, "-I guess we'll just have to find a teacup somewhere."
Xia-Su hummed. "Well, if it's a teacup you're looking for..."
She crouched down next to him, producing what she'd been hiding behind her back with a smile. "...then I might just have something you could use."
Zuko blinked, staring down at her hands. Sitting in it was a familiar teacup, vividly painted with a decoration of red lilies.
It was the same one he'd looked at while searching for a present for Toph, two months ago. The one that had reminded him so much of fire lilies- and of home. Looking up at Xia-Su, she met his perplexed expression with a smile still, placing the cup down.
"We both remembered how much you seemed to like it." She said by way of explanation. "We thought it would make a good gift."
"You didn't think we'd let your birthday pass without a present, right?" Yun chimed in, beaming.
He did, actually. That was why he hadn't even bothered to mention it to anyone but Toph. Not because he expected Toph to give him a present, but just... he didn't think it was that important. Even when he was still a prince, birthday celebrations had been more about putting on a show for the nobility than they had actually been about him. Father certainly never gave him any presents- only his mother had.
And then she'd vanished, and the only person left who gave him presents was Uncle.
Ducking his head, he sucked in a breath. Was it really okay for him to keep doing this? To keep taking advantage of these people's kindness like this? They didn't even know what he was, much less who he was.
"Do you not like it?" Xia-Su asked.
"No!" Zuko said, snapping his head up. "I just- you didn't have to do this."
"I know." Xia-Su said. "But we wanted to."
Swallowing, Zuko looked at the both of them- at their smiles, their kind faces. He still didn't know what was right, but there was one thing he knew for sure- that he was happy. Not only had they spent all day looking after him while he was sick, they had also bought him a present- had remembered something so small as him looking at a teacup once. How could he not be happy?
"Thank you," Zuko said, "-really. Thank you."
Xia-Su and Yun exchanged a glance, before they turned to look back at him with a smile.
"Happy birthday, Li."
Outside of Li's room, Toph smiled to herself, leaning against the exterior wall of the servant's quarters.
She'd been worried about Li being alone on his birthday, but she guessed her worries had all been for nothing. She should have known- it was obvious from the way most of the servants spoke of Li that they cared for him a lot. They knew what she knew- that Li was less of a raging inferno, too dangerous to get close to, and more like a warm campfire- a constant, reassuring presence that kept people warm even on the coldest nights.
For sighted people, they weren't bad, she decided.
Pushing off the wall, she walked away. If she knew Li- and she did- she'd see him tonight at some point. For now, she'd let the rest of his family look after him.
"Happy birthday, Scruffy!"
"Now come here and let me beat you up for pretending you weren't sick."
Zuko took one look at the glint in Toph's eyes, and ran.