Zuko sighed as his father's Ember Island beach house came into view over the crest of the sandy hill. The group trudged wearily, steeped in the same silence that had reigned ever since they'd left the theatre. He wouldn't have imagined that one stupid play could cause this much hurt and awkward tension to form between the friends, but once again the Ember Island Players had shown their propensity for ruining things Zuko loved. Even Sokka was quiet, his strangely thoughtful gaze flickering back and forth between Zuko, Katara and where Aang straggled along at the back. The hush was taut, strained. Coming home after witnessing that theatre monstrosity should have been a relief. But Zuko just felt like he wanted to explode. He settled instead on the slightly less violent option—to go off and be alone.
"I'm going for a walk," he announced, splitting off from the group heading back to the beach house and making a beeline for the beach itself. Katara gave him a backward glance, and Sokka nodded. Aang said nothing, just watched him with some vague emotion somewhere between understanding and jealousy.
Zuko made for the shore, plopping down in the sand in the leeward side of one of the tall dunes, away from the wind. Away from them. He let out a low growl, burying his fist in the sand.
It wasn't that Zuko was angry. Seeing all his countrymen cheering over his 'death' had stung, though no more than he'd expected it to. But he was forced to watch himself betray his Uncle all over again, and that had been painful. Then he'd been unpleasantly surprised upon learning of Jet's death, feeling a pang of... he thought it may have been regret. It wasn't an emotion he would have predicted himself feeling toward the Earth Kingdom Ruffian. All these conflicting feelings were whirling around in his head, so fast it was confusing. And as Iroh could attest to, when Zuko got confused, violence surely followed.
So it was with saint-like patience that he refrained from burning Toph to a crisp when she approached him and dropped down beside him.
"What are you doing here?" he ground out, feeling his temper spike when Toph ignored him with blithe cheerfulness. She stretched luxuriously, leaning back against a large rock that she'd pulled up behind her.
"Nice night," was all she said, and he would have guessed she was gazing up at the stars if he hadn't known better.
Zuko's anger simmered but he said nothing further, choosing to glare at the girl instead. She had this self-satisfied little smile on her face, her eyes narrowed as if she was quite aware of how far under his skin she'd dug herself—and Zuko had no doubt that she was aware. Zuko frowned deeply and resolved to focus on something else.
Her eyes. Her eyes were the only things that unnerved him. They always had. Anytime he thought too hard on what it must like to be blind, completely and utterly sightless, Zuko shuddered inside. He didn't envy her her handicap. Though, Toph hardly qualified for the term 'handicapped'.
Strange. All his anger from before seemed to have faded before Toph's steady and unexpectedly calming presence. He felt... mellow. He wondered if this is what she'd intended by coming over here. He knew for sure that none of the others would have inspired this reaction in him.
So he continued to watch her eyes. They were a pale, washed-out green, beautiful but glassy. They were nothing like his own intense golden eyes, or Sokka and Katara's brilliant blue ones. In fact, they were soft. Perhaps the only thing 'soft' about her. He wondered...
"What do you see?" Zuko asked, startling Toph with his sudden breach of silence. He watched as her sightless eyes turned to him, her brow slightly furrowed.
"That a trick question, Sparky?" Toph replied in a tight, controlled tone. She wasn't smiling but she didn't look very offended, either. She looked guarded but... curious. Curious and perhaps a little surprised.
He felt a pang of embarrassment over the forwardness of his question he turned away, though she couldn't see the gesture. But she could hear it when he spoke. "It's not a trick question. I just... I was wondering. I wanted to know... do you see anything? Can you see anything? Or is it just darkness? Nothing but black?" He realized it might be a sensitive question so he laced his tone with careful neutrality.
"Huh," was Toph's response after a moment, and she buried her toes in the sand. "Wow. I guess I never really thought about it." She shrugged. "I wouldn't say everything looks 'black'. Black is completely subjective—I couldn't see it to tell you what it looks like. I mean, you can't see what you can't see, right?" Zuko briefly worried again that he'd offended her, but she didn't sound bitter and even gave Zuko a small smile. "If I had to describe it, though... I'd say nothing."
Zuko shifted at that, made a little uncomfortable by the revelation but wanting to know more. "What do you mean, nothing? Like, nothing nothing?"
Toph let out a little laugh. "You have a way with words, Sparky." She thought a moment though and finally answered. "Motion is the same thing as color; it's subjective. I don't know what movement looks like, only what it feels like. But what I 'see'-" and here she made quotes with her fingers, "I guess... it sort of reminds me of what motion feels like. It's kind of like how the world feels to me when I'm standing on sand. This kind of... vague, shifting void."
"Hm," was Zuko's only voiced response, though his brain was working to comprehend her meaning. He could almost picture-or rather, not picture-what she meant. He was still processing her words when she spoke up again.
"What about you?"
"What do you see?" She turned back to him with a tiny glint of something knowing in her eye.
"Well..." Zuko began, thinking at first that she meant literally. Sand, scraggly grass, ocean. Her true intention caught up with him a second later. "Wait, what do you mean?" he asked, and his voice was guarded.
"Don't play dumb," Toph smirked. "I know you always favor your right side. Every time you fight, you're compensating for your left. The others may not notice, 'cause you do a pretty good job of hiding it, but I do." He swallowed and she grinned, quite aware of the spike in his heart rate. Damn her for turning the conversation back to him.
"I-uh..." He looked down at his hands. It was ridiculous, considering she couldn't even see him, or the way he'd paled. Here he was, sitting next to a small blind girl, but somehow admitting a weakness still felt like pulling teeth. He couldn't bring himself to continue.
"It's bad?" Toph interjected, interpreting his stillness correctly.
Zuko continued staring at his hands, but slowly he closed his right eye. The outline of his fingers grew fuzzy and dim, his peripheral vision obscured by darkness. "Pretty much."
Toph reached out and snagged a piece of the tall grass growing at the top of the dune, inserting the end into her mouth in a strange facsimile of Jet. "I have no clue what you look like, you know," she began, then stopped. An interesting little segue, from 'looking' to 'looks'. Zuko got the niggling feeling that somehow their positions had been reversed, and now Toph was the one left slightly uncomfortable. "But, well, Katara told me you have a scar."
'Ah,' Zuko thought, humorless smirk twitching at the corner of his mouth. Here's where it always came back to. He might have even rolled his eyes if Toph could have seen it. But instead he just watched her, and something about her posture and the way she stared straight ahead at nothing told him that the question had been earnest.
"Yeah." The response was monosyllabic, but it carried enough emotion in it for Toph to pick up on the lingering hurt and anger that still surrounded the issue. He knew what question came next; it always did. Still, he hoped that by some miracle she wouldn't ask. That maybe his obvious reluctance to elaborate further would keep the words from forming in her mouth. Of course he had no such luck.
Zuko let out a long, drawn sigh, but he knew that even if Toph had known beforehand what a sensitive issue it was, she might still have asked. "It's a really long story," he said, still hoping to dissuade her from pressing him further, but she simply made a circular motion with her hand for him to continue. He closed his eyes, blocking out the dying glow of the sun on the horizon and the beach dissolved into green grass and rows of tall, spiraling columns.
"I was thirteen," he began, and as if in response to his words his brain supplied him with an image of himself at the time: young, fresh-faced and mostly good-natured, if a little willful and headstrong. "Father had been Fire Lord for maybe three years. I was the crown prince, next in line for the throne—and this was before everybody hated me. So naturally I was a little spoiled."
"Uh huh," Toph mumbled over her grass stem. Zuko didn't have to be from the Earth Kingdom to understand that any daughter of Lao Bei Fong would know a thing or two about being spoiled.
"It wasn't easy though," he continued. "Being a Fire Lord-in-training meant that I had a lot of studies. Firebending, math, science, politics, history, calligraphy..." Toph let out a snort at the last. Of course, calligraphy meant nothing to her. "I was never very good at any of it," Zuko admitted. "But I always tried really hard. My father. I... always wanted to please him, you know?"
Toph made a noncommittal noise, and Zuko's mouth twisted into a wry smirk. This was Toph after all, and pleasing people wasn't the first thing that came to mind when he thought about her. Maybe something deeper lurked beneath her exterior, but after all, she'd asked about him.
"Everybody expected so much out of me, most of all my father. It was a lot of stress but I was excited and... proud that one day I'd be the one to lead my nation. I did everything I could to make sure I was ready. But the one thing I never got to do was sit in on a war meeting."
Zuko opened his eyes to see Toph apparently engrossed with picking her toes, but when his voice stopped she turned to regard him with her vacant, unblinking stare. For some reason he'd thought that his old wish would sound petty or stupid to her, but if she thought so, she didn't say. "Sounds like fun," she offered gamely.
"Not really," Zuko shrugged. "It was more the idea than anything. They wouldn't let me in because I was too young, and that irritated me." He closed his eyes and he could see the expression on his face when the guards had blocked his way, all wounded pride and impetuosity. "So I got my uncle to let me in." His voice dropped a notch as he spoke of the man who'd been more of a father to him than his own father ever had. He felt Toph shift next to him at the mention as well. Their conversation in the theatre lingered in his mind, easing some of the weight he felt over his betrayal, but it hadn't changed the fact that he was riddled with guilt and doubt. His arm still smarted from their little talk, though, so fearing another punch, he changed the subject.
"Everybody raised in the Fire Nation gets taught that no matter what happens, or what you're asked to do, it's for the good of the whole. For the honor of your country. If you're asked to do something you don't agree with, you sacrifice. You suspend your morals and you just do it." He let out a dry little laugh. "But I had this black-and-white sense of what was right and wrong, and you know how stubborn I can get. So when this general suggested sacrificing inexperienced troops to be slaughtered for a diversion... well, I couldn't help it. I gave him a piece of my mind. It just kind of... slipped out."
"So you insulted some general's plan," Toph inserted, tossing a rock in the direction of an unsuspecting seagull. Her aim, of course, was impeccable. "What's the big deal?"
Zuko made a small, dry noise in his throat. "It wasn't that simple. I was taking a risk going in there as it was. Speaking out of turn—much less passing angry judgment on one of my father's top generals—was just way out of line."
"But who cares?" Toph argued. "You're the Fire Lord's son, right? I thought nobody argued with royalty and got away with it."
"You don't understand." Zuko's hands traveled up the back of his neck to knot in his hair. "Being the Fire Lord's son didn't excuse me from getting in trouble. If anything, it made me more accountable."
"Huh," Toph said, finally relenting. Zuko supposed she knew something of having to live up to certain standards of expectation and decorum, considering how she'd grown up. She relaxed back into the sand, settling against her rock.
Zuko's fingers laced behind his head and he closed his eyes. Once again he was transported back three years, and this time he could almost feel his father's ire, a crackling dry heat coming from the inferno that surrounded the throne. "My dad was furious," he said, surprising himself with the slight, shaky quality of his voice. "I'd insulted the general's honor, and the only way to settle it was by Agni Kai. A fire duel."
Zuko was on the platform, down on one knee, the setting sun washing over his back. He could feel the stony, dispassionate stares of his tutors, his countrymen, his family, all weighing down on him.
"I wasn't afraid," he continued. "I'd been trained by the best tutors, and while I wasn't a master by any means, I knew I could hold my own against the general. Except that it wasn't him I had to fight."
Now it was Toph's stare that was bearing down on him, sightless as it was. "Wait, what do you mean?" Zuko could sense the confusion in her voice, so he forced himself to elaborate.
"I was in my father's war room when I spoke out of turn. Technically, I didn't just insult the general. I... I disrespected my father. It was him I had to fight."
"Oh," was Toph's response, succinct but sufficient to convey the weight of her realization and surprise. "Wow." She spit her piece of grass, reaching awkwardly to give him a thump on the shoulder that may have qualified as her version of 'friendly encouragement'. "What did you do?"
Zuko tried to avoid imagining what it had been like to turn to face his opponent, steeled and ready to fight, only to see his father's face staring back at him. But it was inevitable. Even after three years he could feel his stomach sink to his feet, and his hands, clenched into fists, begin to shake. "I couldn't fight him. So I got down on my knees. And I begged for mercy." His tone was clipped to keep out the emotion. The shame. He didn't have reason to think Toph would scoff at him, but he grew defensive nonetheless. "I didn't have much choice. My father, well... you don't get to be Fire Lord by being a slouch Firebender. I wouldn't have stood a chance. Plus... I loved him." If Toph was surprised by the revelation, she said nothing. But Zuko wasn't listening anyway. "Everything's so messed up," he hissed. "It's Aang's job to put the world back into balance, and that probably means killing the Fire Lord. I know I should be happy about that. I know this comet thing is all his fault, and he's done terrible things to everyone. He's done terrible things to me. But... he's my father."
Toph had been silent and still through his whole speech, but now she hugged her knees, looking much like the child that she was. "He did it to you, didn't he? Your father. He gave you that scar."
Zuko heard her intake of breath, but he ignored it. He'd never actually told anyone the origin of his scar. Before now, no one had been direct enough to ask. He'd always thought that he'd come to terms with the thing, at least in his head. But he never imagined that talking about it could feel this raw.
"I refused to fight him. How could I? I would have done anything for him—and I thought he could see that. But all he said was that by refusing to duel, I was showing shameful weakness. That my punishment for disrespecting him would be... would be suffering. And-" The memory was all too vivid.
His father, tall, strong, stony, standing over him. His sharp silhouette, outlined by the red-orange of the setting sun. The grit of the stone under Zuko's hands and knees and the sting of the tears streaming from his eyes. The painful clench of dread in his gut, because he knew what was coming. His father's hand outstretched. The hurt. The sick, disbelieving fear. And the pain.
He was drawn back into the present by Toph's hand, alighting and resting softly on his shoulder. Her eyes gazed off into nothing, but her hair did little to hide the expression on her face. It was funny how different they all were, their little group. How different Toph was from Katara, who would have tried saying all sorts of things to make him feel better. Toph's silence, however, spoke volumes more than words ever could. Her quiet support reminded him of his Uncle, and Zuko sighed again at the realization that it was just another thing for which he'd taken the older man for granted. But that was the past. He had the future to look forward to, when he would make up for every single thing he'd undoubtedly done to hurt the man. And everyone else.
Zuko broke the silence. "I've... never told anybody before. Thank you for listening."
Toph's mouth curved up into a small smile, and she scooted a few inches closer to him through the sand. "Don't mention it. Ever. Seriously." Zuko chuckled, and she didn't protest when the boy wrapped his arm around her to pull her into an awkward half-hug. "Sweetness would never let me live it down if she knew we were hugging."
"Yeah," Zuko agreed, staring off into the waves glittering under the sliver of the moon rising steadily in the east.
Neither of them spoke for a few more moments, but this time the silence was quite comfortable. The air cooled off in stages and Toph snuggled closer to take advantage of his body heat. She settled into the crook of his arm and laid her head on his shoulder. None of this surprised Zuko, though, as much as her small hand wandering over, up his arm and across the expanse of his chest.
"...What?" Zuko murmured in vague alarm. He'd been drowsy before, but the sensation of her slight fingers touching him through his clothes was enough to wake him, and quickly. "What are you doing?"
"Just getting a feel for you, Sparky," was Toph's answer, and although a faint pink blush had settled on her cheeks, she didn't stop. "Gotta find out what you look like one way or another."
Still faintly bewildered, he let her continue. "I... see."
"Hm. So do I," Toph chuckled. She paused, then, "You've got broad shoulders."
This time Zuko blushed, and self-consciously drew in on himself. "Well, I am a guy."
"Yeah, but what about Twinkletoes?" Toph grinned, her hand traveling up his collarbone to his neck.
Zuko tried not to be affected by the lightness of her touch, feathering over places nobody but Mai had ever really touched before. "Aang hardly counts," Zuko coughed. "He's what, twelve? Same age as you," he said, rather pointedly, as Toph's fingers began exploring his jawline.
"Relax, Sparky!" Toph let out a laugh at his discomfort, and Zuko seethed that somehow their positions had been reversed again, and this time he was the twelve-year-old. "This is about as erotic to me as picking out a head of cabbage. Which means not at all, by the way."
Zuko managed to be both vaguely amused and slightly offended by her words. "Ha. Thanks."
Toph's hand had stayed just below his jaw, in the fringes of his longish hair beside his right ear. Zuko let his aggravation melt away as the seconds passed. There was silence again, but this time expectant, and Toph's smile had mostly disappeared. Well... If this was what Toph wanted, he guessed he couldn't see the harm in it.
"Go ahead," he nodded.
Slowly, ever so lightly, Toph's fingers moved over the edge of his jawline, up his right cheek. She shifted into his lap, to get a better angle, but he didn't move. There was only the steady, quickened pace of his heartbeat, and the almost imperceptible rush of air from his nostrils as he breathed. She ghosted along the side of his face, over his cheekbone, across the fine arch of his eyebrow. He let out a small sigh and closed his eyes as her thumb pressed against his upper eyelid, tracing the subtle slant. She traveled down, over the bridge of his nose, pausing to take in the differences between their facial structures.
"Wow," Toph said lowly. "You're pretty like a girl!"
"I assume you want to keep those fingers," Zuko smirked, voice a deep, low rumble in his chest.
Toph snorted and then her fingers were on his mouth, tracing over the cool, dry expanse of his lower lip and up the slight curve to the corner.
"Nice girly lips—I rest my case."
Zuko growled, but he made no move to dislodge her or carry out his prior threat. Instead he went stock still, like a statue. Toph tilted her head in a silent question. Her fingers had moved from his mouth to the left side of his face, resting on his jawline only a few inches from his scar. His sudden stiffness was involuntary—though he would have been tense no matter who or what the circumstances. Toph looked curious, and unfazed, though he knew she wouldn't continue without his permission. Zuko closed his eyes.
Zuko swallowed as her fingers moved up, brushing over the outer edges of where smooth skin met scar tissue. He heard her ragged intake of breath as she began exploring the boundaries of the old injury, following it down across his cheek to the back corner of his jaw and over his ear. Much of the damage was in this area, and while there had been no impairment to his hearing, most of the nerve endings had been destroyed. He felt only the faintest whispers of sensation as she traced along the shell. She continued tracing up, up, into his hairline, where his hair covered a good portion of the injury, then back down to the inner corner of his eye. Here he could vaguely feel her touch as it skimmed across his eyelid, finally terminating when she reached the outer corner of his eye. Her hand fell back to her lap, and there was silence for a few seconds while they both gathered their composure.
"Zuko," Toph said, and it was perhaps the first and only time he'd ever heard her call him that, rather than some inane sobriquet. Her voice was low and serious. Not pitying but sympathetic, perhaps. It was just enough to chafe at him, however well-meaning her intentions were.
"It was a long time ago," Zuko dismissed, his voice a good deal rougher than he would have liked.
"Not so long," Toph disagreed.
Zuko would have opened his mouth to argue, except that he knew the inevitable outcome of an argument with Toph. That, and he was exhausted. He was about to move Toph out of his lap when she surprised him again.
"I'm glad you showed me, though." Zuko paused, still very, very tired, but also interested. "Knowing what you look like... explains a lot about your character. It doesn't define you. Only you can do that. But it does explain." It was more than Toph had ever said at once to him, about him. It was strange, a little, and unexpected. But it made sense.
"Thanks," he said tentatively. And he supposed he was glad he'd showed her, too.
Zuko would have laughed, if he'd been able. Maybe his mother had been right and the theatre wasn't so bad—it had led to this, after all, whatever it was.
…On second thought, nah.
He climbed to his feet, stretching and setting Toph on the ground beside him. They made their way back to the beach house together in amiable silence, and as they did, they held hands.