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till the day they finally caught you

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It took Toph a few days to connect the dots. 

 

“Who’s Zuko?” Exhausted didn’t even begin to describe how they feel. They’d been traveling for days on minimal sleep with intervals of intense battle and the last proper meal they ate was with Toph’s parents. Sleeping on Appa wasn’t an ideal circumstance with the wind loudly blowing around them and keeping them cold. 

 

“Oh, just some angry freak with a ponytail who’s tracked us all over the world.” replied Sokka, before facing down in the dirt in an attempt to sleep, but not before defending the dignity of his ‘warrior’s wolftail.’ 

 

Said Angry Freak With a Ponytail appeared within the next two days and turned out to not be the person chasing them. Or at least, he hadn’t been the person chasing them with giant lizards and an unstoppable tank. Toph could feel a distinct difference between the girl who had hunted them and Zuko. The girl, Azula she learned later, was quick and agile. She reminded Toph of when she had first fought Aang at Earth Rumble. She never stayed in the same place for more than a few seconds and when she moved, she ran on her tiptoes, speedy and nimble. Zuko was entirely different.  With every step, he gave a hundred and ten percent. He was clumsier but had an earthbender’s drive and stamina. 

 

After their day-long chase, Toph pieced together some facts: one, Zuko had chased them all over the world since Aang had appeared. Two, Zuko was not affiliated with this other girl chasing them, meaning he probably had different reasons for wanting to stop Aang. Three, Zuko was most likely the nephew of the old man who had given her tea (given his territorial protection of the old man when he had fallen after the fight), meaning that “ he’s trying to figure out who he is” and “his life has recently changed and he’s going through a difficult time.” And four, a piece of information Aang revealed that was new to not only her but Katara and Sokka as well, was that the girl that had been recently tracking them and Zuko were siblings. 

 

It took a few nights of uninterrupted sleep and some brief introspection before Toph realized just who this guy was.

One of the things Toph resented her parents the most for was their continuous filtering and withholding of information they thought might upset her. She didn’t learn about the war until she was eight, and only then by listening against the door of her father’s study while he tried to negotiate trade deals ‘accounting for Fire Nation blockades’ and ‘the most recent siege of Gaipan’. When her parents read the news updates and her mother would comment “awful, just awful,” Toph would beg for more details and be judged to be too delicate to handle such horrific facts. None of the guards would dare defy her parents and read her the news, so she took to eavesdropping.  Without actual details, however, she grew disinterested villages she had never heard of and battles her country was losing and continued spying for the fun of it alone. 

 

It was one eavesdropping session when she was nine that a new story sparked her interest. 

 

Did you hear about the Fire Nation prince?” 

 

“No, why?” 

 

“The Firelord banished him.” 

 

“Shit, how’d that happen?” 

 

“I don’t know some internal politics crap. I heard something about a fire duel, Agni Kai I think is what it’s called. Anyway, the kid said something and the Firelord burned his face in front of the whole court, then banished him.” 

 

“Kid? How old is he?” 

 

“Fourteen, I think. I try to keep up with that kind of stuff but you know how it is, word of mouth can be unreliable.” 

 

“Spirits, just goes to show you how fucked up that country really is. Burning your own kid?”

 

“Yeah, apparently his whole left side is just burned off. He might be blind in one eye.” 

 

“Damn. Those people are fuckin’ barbarians.” 

 

“You said it.” 

 

“What’s the kid’s name?” 

 

“You know I’m not your personal news dump, pick up an update once in a while. I think it’s Azulon or… wait no that’s the last fire lord, I think the kid is Zuko or something like that.” 

 

Now that was something new. Listening to the two guards discuss a Fire Nation prince publicly burned and banished for unknown reasons, by his own father nonetheless, that put the Fire Nation in perspective for her. Her parents treated her like a glass doll despite the fact that she had been blind all her life and was managing perfectly well on her own. She could quite literally not imagine them laying a hand on her, much less laying a hand on her and having said hand be on fire for the purpose of burning her. Toph knew that with the way her parents kept her secret from the world that they would give anything to have her be “ normal,” as they put it when they thought she wasn’t listening, and she didn’t quite believe that someone’s father would blind his child on purpose. But they were Fire Nation. They had pillaged the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes and Toph could only assume what they had done to the Air Nomads (which were conveniently not mentioned in recent history and which her tutors suspiciously avoided talking about when she asked). That was just what the Fire Nation did to kids who spoke out of turn, she assumed. 

 

And it was one night under her earth tent that Toph remembered that overheard conversation and that name ‘Zuko’. Of course, there had to be other people named Zuko, but she had a pit feeling that these were the same person. He had sounded young, about Sokka’s age. And pieces of the puzzle started to fit into place. He had followed them around the Earth kingdom because he couldn’t go back to the Fire Nation. He wasn’t working with this other Fire Nation girl because he wasn’t part of the Fire Nation anymore. And he fought rough and angry because, well, all of the shit she had overheard the guards talking about. She’d be angry too. 

 

She didn’t know how to feel about the guy because, with a story so awful it made her put her own parents in perspective, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. She could feel his heartbeat stop and speed up like a hummingbird bee when the old man had fallen to the ground. And she knew that he had not followed them after the girl had escaped their cornering. Toph didn’t know where to place this Angry Ponytail Zuko Guy because she knew while he had chased them and spent months causing them general mayhem, apparently kidnapping Aang once in the North Pole she would find out later, she knew he wasn’t with the Fire Nation. She figured whatever his motivations were for following them, it must be a personal thing, and since he hadn’t bothered them since she joined the group, she figured he must have gotten over it. She trusted the old man and when he told her about his nephew’s “difficult journey,” he was sincere. 

 

And she assumed that the others knew everything she did about the former prince.

 

It wasn’t until the old man showed up on the steps of their house in Ba Sing Se that Toph realized how much the others hated this guy. The old man, Zuko’s Uncle Iroh, they didn’t have as much of a problem with. But Sokka could only express so much disdain for Zuko when Iroh showed up to their doorstep telling them that there was “good inside” his nephew. 

 

Toph trusted Iroh and he trusted Zuko. That was good enough for her. 

 

‘Angry Jerk’ was one of the nicer phrases Sokka used to describe Zuko on their way to rescue the Earth King and after the fall of Ba Sing Se, she could understand their hatred. Katara explained what had happened in the catacombs, how Zuko had turned on them and joined Azula, who had shot lightning at Aang when he was in the Avatar state and almost killed him.

 

But Toph wasn’t in the business of harboring specific anger. She was blind: there was no ‘face of the enemy.’ There were moments of peace and there were moments of battle and whoever didn’t want to get their asses handed to them on a metal platter was wise to get on her side, was how she felt. She wasn’t going to waste her energy harboring hatred for a guy she barely knew, not knowing that she probably knew more about him than anyone else in her group. 

 

And again, she couldn’t help but connect that story she heard when she was eight to this adversary. She couldn’t help but wonder what his face looked like or if he could see out of his scarred eye. And she was still confused over why he had joined his sister overthrow Ba Sing Se when he was supposed to be banished from his nation. She didn’t understand why he still fought for the Fire Nation’s side. 

 

So when the infamous Angry Freak With a Ponytail showed up on their doorstep to, of all things, teach Aang firebending, Toph just thought ‘ so, you came to your senses, Prince Ponytail?’

 

The others had reasonably been opposed to the idea, but from where she was standing and where they were all standing in the war and with the fact that they had spent the entire morning discussing finding a firebending teacher for Aang, Toph thought they were being absolutely stupid. They didn’t listen to her when she vouched for his sincerity, even though it had been enough for them when they interrogated literally anyone else. She knew he had been telling the truth and the others were being completely unreasonable. 

 

“I could have stolen your bison in Ba Sing Se, but I set him free.” 

 

Truth. 

 

“I know I’ve made some mistakes in the past.” 

 

Truth. 

 

“I was wrong to try to capture you and I’m sorry I attacked the water tribe.” 

 

Truth. 

 

“And I never should have sent that Fire Nation assassin after you.” 

 

Tru-- wait, what? 

 

“You know I have good in me.” 

 

Sincere. 

 

Toph could feel the guy’s remorse with her own two feet. She knew what the Firelord had done to him when he was a kid. She knew Iroh had trusted his nephew. And most importantly, she knew he could teach Aang firebending. It made perfect sense to her and everyone, everyone else apparently forgot how to think clearly. Yeah, Sokka, he could have been a much bigger jerk, he could have been an Azula-level Shoot Aang With Lightning kind of a jerk. He could have been Firelord-Level evil, but he didn’t sound like he was. Zuko sounded confused and he no longer felt angry. And yeah Katara, maybe a guy who was publicly mutilated and banished before his voice cracked has feelings. Toph knew Zuko had done her friends wrong in the past, but she thought they might have some shred of empathy for him. 

 

Even after they let him into their group they still didn’t trust him, despite her telling them that he wasn’t lying (she would eventually learn how lying did not run in the family and that earthbending wasn’t really necessary in Zuko’s case). But Toph didn’t care, she liked him enough. He reminded her of his uncle. She liked that she could get him to carry her on his shoulders for as long as she wanted by guilt-tripping him over the whole feet-burning fiasco (and she liked that firebenders apparently ran naturally warm). She liked that they could use his firebending to cook meat in just the right way (she might not miss high society by any means, but she missed eating fish that wasn’t burned or raw). She liked that he didn’t try and suck up to the group by making excuses for all the times he screwed them over, he just grew showed up and taught Aang firebending (and she could appreciate how he didn’t pussyfoot around training like Katara had wanted her to and actually pushed the Avatar to his limits). The guy made them tea, busted their friends out of jail, and was amazingly easy to make jokes about. So yeah, Toph liked the guy enough. 

 

“And we saw so many colors, colors I didn’t think existed. And it wasn’t fire for destruction, it was energy. I felt like it was giving me life.” Zuko recounted the firebending secrets he and Aang had learned with the dragons. Toph was riding around on his shoulders while they looked for food in the forest. Her feet had healed but she was going to take advantage of the new mode of transportation for as long as he would let her. 

 

“Ah yes tell me more about the colors,” Toph said with a fake enthusiasm she knew Zuko would fall for. 

 

“It was incredible! There were hundreds of- oh, sorry I forgot the whole… blind thing.” He said miserably. Toph snickered in reply. 

 

“It’s okay, Sokka falls for it all the time. I can’t tell you the number of times he’s taken my advice for directions when we’re flying. It’s great.” 

 

Zuko wasn’t yet in the Making Inside Jokes stage of friendship yet, but his soft laughter let Toph know that yes, while they both knew Sokka’s quick thinking and strategy had saved them multiple times, eighty percent of the time he seemed to have his brain turned off.  

 

“So if you can’t see unless you’re touching the ground, why am I carrying you around?” he asked with some annoyance. 

 

“Like I said, this is payback for burning my feet.” Toph replied while flicking his forehead, “besides you won’t drop me.” 

 

“Really?” Zuko knew that Toph trusted him the most out of everyone but he was still wary. 

 

“You better not drop me if you know what’s good for you.” Toph quipped back, and yeah, they both knew who would win in that fight. 

 

They walked in pleasant silence for a while. Toph kept her arms around Zuko’s head while he gripped her ankles to keep her steady ( “hands off the feet, Sparky”). She could remember a man carrying her around on his shoulders when she was little and feeling calm, but couldn’t place if the man had been her father or a hired guard. She couldn’t imagine her dad treating her with such overt physical affection. It wasn’t Proper Society Behavior and the Beifongs had a reputation to uphold, and such reputation had no place for a blind daughter. Sometimes the voices of her parents would snake into her brain as they would apologize to their guests that “ our daughter is blind, you see,” and saying the word as if it were a disgusting swear. Toph loved her father but she did not miss him. 

 

“So can you see out of your eye?” 

 

Zuko didn’t stop walking, but he internally wanted to jump off a cliff when Toph asked him that question. He liked Toph because she had believed him when he told the group he had switched sides. She had a take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners attitude and earthbending skills that made him grateful he had never actually faced her in a fight. She didn’t look at him with disdain like the others did because, well, she couldn’t see him at all. 

 

And then there was the scar. 

 

He had spent three years of people looking at his face with either devastating pity or piercing judgment, that is if they looked at him at all. The Fire Nation recognized his scar as a mark of shame and banishment. Kind Earth Kingdom villagers and refugees had looked at his scar as a mark of survival, victimhood. Some had shown him similar faded burns on their arms and legs, but they recognized the severity of what the sixteen-year-old had endured to get that large of a mark. And for so long, the group he was trying to make amends to had deemed his scarred face as the “face of the enemy.” Servants avoided looking at him in the eye when he had returned home. Uncle had infuriating remorse in his eyes every time he looked at Zuko for years after his banishment. On the boat ride from Ba Sing Se, he could feel Mai and Ty Lee’s fixed gazes on the pink, raised burn mark, trying to reconcile this new face with one they had grown up with. Ozai knew what he was doing that day in the arena. No one could look at him without seeing past the mark on his face. 

 

But Toph was supposed to be different. She hadn’t looked at him with any unwanted pity or morbid fixation because she saw who he was over what he looked like. 

 

But she did know about his scar and he kicked himself for thinking that someone might be different. 

 

“Um, yeah I can see out of it,” he replied. 

 

“Oh, well that’s probably good. I don’t think you can see with firebending,” replied Toph with 

 

Zuko let out a small chuckle, “yeah I guess not .” He felt her left hand loosen its grip from his forehead. 

 

“Can I...,” Toph hesitated before deciding that, no, she wasn’t going to ask. She knew Zuko but she didn’t know him that well and she didn’t want his view of her to be someone that needed to do that to see him. She didn’t need anyone’s help to see people. 

Zuko knew what she wanted and decided that, in an attempt to match the trust the earthbender had shown him in letting him carry her around, reached up to guide her hand down to his left eye. 

 

Toph accepted the firebender’s permission and gripped her other arm around Zuko’s forehead. She started at the eye, which she could tell didn’t open all the way as his eyelid was as scarred as the skin around it. His left eyebrow was missing. Toph used two fingers to trace the edges of the scar and her brow furrowed as the rough skin just kept going. She realized that it went to the top of his forehead to the middle of his cheek and went on to cover his entire left ear. Toph cupped her hand and covered Zuko’s eye, affirming her suspicion that the scar was much larger than her hand. 

 

Zuko could count the number of people who he had let touch his scar on one hand. The first was Uncle back when he was thirteen and stubbornly didn’t let anyone else touch his face in the days when his burn was fresh and healing. Looking back, the burn might not have scarred as badly as it did if Zuko had let a professional physician help him, but back then he just couldn’t do that. He did let Uncle put medicine on the burn, but only reluctantly. Uncle didn’t touch the scar again, respecting his nephew’s need for space. 

 

The second person had been Jet. Jet was an anomaly as he didn’t look at Zuko’s scar with pity or anything resembling pity, but some sick type of envy. He looked at Zuko’s scar and designed a story around it, a story that said Zuko was an enemy of the Fire Nation and that he harbored the same anger that Jet had. Jet had decided it was a mark of battle. He didn’t touch Zuko’s scar with trepidation or care that one night in the corners of the ferry heading to Ba Sing Se, but ran his thumb across the flesh as if he was marking the underside of  Zuko’s eye with war paint.

 

 The third person was a woman he didn’t know the name of. She had been a regular at Pao’s and she always ordered strong green tea, but Zuko hadn’t learned her name. One day she had called him over and when he expected her to ask for a refill or complain that her tea wasn’t either too weak or too hot, she instead lifted a wrinkled hand to his face and gingerly cupped the scarred side of his face. He hadn’t known how to react and knew Pao wouldn’t be happy if he lashed out at this woman, so he sucked down any rage as this woman told him that her son was fighting on the front lines and the pain Zuko had gone through would one day be a distant memory. He thanked her through a veil of anger and later cracked two teacups while he was washing them, uncontrollably boiling the sink water. She didn’t know him. She had no right. 

 

The fourth person was Katara. Zuko regretted how he repaid her kind gesture to heal the mark with betrayal, though he got the feeling that it wouldn’t have made a difference as Azula’s lightning mark was still prominent on Aang’s back. He knew that wondering about a face without the scar and holding onto the idea that he could one day be rid of it was a dangerous hole to fall into. He had learned that dwelling on the past wasn’t going to help him in the path ahead. 

 

The last person to touch Zuko’s scar was Mai. On the boat ride from Ba Sing Se, she had cupped his face and kissed him, acting as if the scar wasn’t there at all. He could tell that she fixated on it sometimes when she thought he wasn’t looking, but she was a good actress. She was good at looking beyond what hurt and cutting to being a person. Mai made him feel normal when everyone else treated him like an alien. 

 

And now, with Toph’s tiny hand measuring the roughness and largeness of the scar, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t define his face with that mark. 

 

“Wow,” Toph involuntarily whispered when she finished her assessment. And no, she had no idea how to react to something like this. When she wanted to show someone she cared she would punch them on the arm or make fun of them, but this was a different situation. This was a My Friend’s Dad Burned Half of His Face and I Can Feel Just How Messed Up It Is kind of situation. What did you say to that? 

 

Toph settled on saying nothing. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Zuko’s head and rested her chin on the top of his head until they found a tree to collect produce from. Toph walked the way back instead of riding on Zuko’s shoulders. 

 

The walk back suffered an unbearable silence filled with unanswered questions. Zuko wondered how Toph had known about his scar, if the others had described him to her. He wondered if they knew just how he had gotten that scar and assumed they probably did. He wondered how the younger girl thought of him now that she had an idea of his face and knew by the silence that there had been a shift. 

 

Toph just thought of how much that burn must have hurt when Zuko had received it. 

 

“Your hair is shorter than I thought it would be,” the earthbender finally broke the silence with. Zuko needed a second to process the question. 

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“I could feel your hair, it’s too short to put in a ponytail,” Toph replied as if that explained everything. 

 

“Yeah, so?” 

 

“Sokka said you had a ponytail but your hair is too short.”

“Oh.” So that was how he was described to the blind girl, “I cut it off a while ago.” 

 

“I guess it doesn’t really matter since I can’t see you anyway,” Toph settled on, but couldn’t justify that statement with the more than a few minutes she had spent feeling the firebender’s face. “Did it catch on fire?” She regretted the question almost as soon as she asked it. 

 

“No, I just,” Zuko paused and contemplated his decision to sever ties from the Fire Nation, only to fall back into it months later, “needed a change I guess.” 

 

“You know if I was a firebender I wouldn’t have any hair at all. Twinkletoes has the right idea with the shaved head. I wouldn’t take the risk of losing a fight just because of some hair.” Toph commented. 

 

“I used to have most of it shaved,” Zuko explained, “It was just the phoenix tail that I kept long.” 

 

Toph tried to construct an idea of what her companion’s old hair had looked like. “So like Sokka’s hair? With the one long part?” She tried to compare. 

 

“I guess it was something like that, but more of it was shaved off than Sokka’s.” Toph hadn’t actually felt what Sokka’s hair looked like and had picked up an idea of what his warrior’s wolftail looked like from Katara’s playful jabs. She remembered how close Zuko’s scar was to his hairline and made a conclusion. 

 

“When you had the, you know…” she pointed to her own eye, “did your hair catch on fire?” 

 

They were back on that. This wasn’t a conversation Zuko anticipated as he assumed most people knew the details of, but decided he owed it to his new friend to answer her questions. “Yeah, some of it did.” 

 

Zuko could vaguely visualize what he saw when he first looked in the mirror after the Agni Kai. His vision had been blurry and he couldn’t see out of his burned eye for weeks after, but he could remember seeing parts of his hair singed. He could still smell the asinine stink of burning flesh and hair. On his first night conscious and alone he had made the executive decision to chop off the burned hair contaminating the silky unharmed strands. He looked ridiculous with the one chunk of hair above his eye cut off. Uncle had come in his room and shaved a consistent circle to match the patch Zuko had cut off, preserving the royal phoenix tail. Zuko had let him keep his hair like that for years, hating watching it grow uneven. 

 

“Is it… true?” Toph finally blurted out. He had been waiting and dreading the question and knew exactly what she was asking. 

 

“Depends on what you heard,” he replied, avoiding looking at his companion, “but it probably is.” 

 

“I was really little when I heard about it but I heard that your dad did it.” Toph’s voice was uncharacteristically soft and it reminded Zuko just how young she was, despite her unbelievable combat skills. She was still a kid. “I heard he did it when you were fourteen and banished you.” She was met with silence before mentioning, “I don’t know anything else.” 

 

The Agni Kai room was packed. There had been dozens of nobles and generals excited to see a duel as it had been years since a formal one had been announced and open to the public. Some didn’t know the prince was to fight and some did. Zuko had expected to prove his worth to his father and his country. He had spent days practicing his forms. This was his chance to prove himself as worthy of the title of Crowned Prince. 

The room was unbelievably bright and loud, but Zuko could only hear echoes and see silhouettes of anyone who wasn’t his father. 

 

The marble floor was freezing on Zuko’s hands and feet as he bowed down to the Firelord. 

 

“You will fight for your honor.” 

 

“Rise and fight, Prince Zuko.” 

 

“You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.” 

 

The prince could taste his own tears and blinked past them to see Ozai’s hand come down. He felt his face growing warm and it was too late before he realized that it was from his father’s fire. 

 

Zuko closed his eyes and screamed as the Firelord’s hand pressed against his son’s face, palm ablaze, not holding back anything. 

 

That was what Zuko remembered. He hadn’t held onto the exact words he had spoken at the meeting. He hadn’t remembered the face of the general he had insulted. He had barely remembered what day or time it had happened, but he remembered everything that had happened after he set foot in the arena. 

 

“I was thirteen, actually,” he finally responded, knowing that wouldn’t cut off Toph’s curiosity. He did not want to have this conversation. There were moments in his life that had made him stronger, moments he had learned lessons from despite how painful they had been. He had failed and been beaten down in the past and had gotten up every single time. But he would give a lot to forget that act of needless cruelty. He had learned his lesson, the lesson that he should fear his father, but it took too long for him to internalize that notion.  

 

Toph’s usually blank face revealed horror and confusion. The war had shaped the childhoods of so many kids into distorted images of destroyed homes and broken families, the youth of a person seldom mattered and the suffering they had endured was recognized over the years they had lived. But they were still kids. They were small and naive until they couldn’t be anymore. 

 

“Why did he do it?” 

 

‘Stop, just please stop.’ Zuko thought. He told himself that he owed his former enemies the truth after all the strife he had put them through, but he wanted desperately to stop thinking about the crowd of nobles watching his branding and he wanted to stop thinking about Ozai’s voice being the loudest and most sinister sound he would hear in his life and he wanted to stop feeling the leftovers of the humiliation inflicted upon him being thirteen and publically sobbing and screaming and he wanted to stop thinking about how much it hurt when Ozai- 

 

“Zuko!” Toph grabbed his arm and snapped him out of the ugly spiral his brain was subjecting him to. His heartbeat was going miles a minute and his breathing was sporadic. Toph could feel his arms stiffen and his hands uncontrollably shake. He blinked and relaxed his body, but his heartbeat was still fast. 

 

“Sorry,” he mumbled before realizing, “I never talked about it before.” He forced his breathing under control. Toph loosened her grip from his arm and nodded as if to say, ‘you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.’ 

 

“I spoke out at a meeting.” The words came out automatically. Zuko felt like a puppet and someone else was speaking the words coming out of his mouth. “There was a meeting and I wasn’t supposed to be there and I wasn’t supposed to talk, but I said some things I shouldn’t have said.” 

 

Toph tried to focus on anything but Zuko’s heartbeat. 

 

“I was disrespectful and I had to fight an Agni Kai to defend my actions.” he paused before deciding to clarify, “that a firebending duel.” Toph nodded in understanding with a grim look on her face. 

 

“I thought I was going to fight the general, but it turned out to be the Firelord.” 

 

He paused, hoping he could leave it there, but knew he had to explain further. 

 

“What did you do?” Toph asked, with a suspicion that her previous idea that Zuko had unleashed some serious firebending talent against the Firelord before his banishment was most likely not going to be confirmed. 

 

Zuko knew, he knew this part wasn’t his fault. 

 

He knew it was cruel. He knew it was unjustified. He knew that he had been too young. He knew it was Ozai’s fault. 

 

But he couldn’t stop himself from wishing he had stood and fought. He couldn’t stop himself from blaming himself for being weak and cowardly, despite everything that he knew to be true. 

 

“Nothing,” Zuko confessed. If Toph had been in his position she would have fought without question. She wouldn’t have grovelled for her father’s forgiveness over speaking her mind. She wouldn’t have just taken that burn. Zuko felt embarrassed at admitting his thirteen-year-old weakness. “I told him I wouldn’t fight him and asked for forgiveness.” He felt unbelievably stupid for once thinking Ozai had the capacity to care for him. 

 

The pair were nearing the temple and Zuko didn’t want to carry the conversation inside. “He banished me and told me the only way I could return was by capturing the Avatar.” 

 

Toph processed the new details she had about the former prince. She wanted to throw something. She wanted to hit someone. She was angry at the Fire Nation for being a place where kids could be burned and cast out by their parents over nothing. She was angry at the Firelord for abusing her friend. She was angry at the Earth Kingdom for losing the war. And a part of her was angry at Zuko for staying loyal to his father for so long. 

 

And she was glad that despite her parents being disappointed in her for being blind and despite how they hid her from society and disregarded her as a person, she knew they loved her and wanted her, unlike Zuko’s dad. 

 

She settled on weakly punching Zuko’s arm to express her anger and said, “your family is pretty messed up.” 

 

“That is … an understatement,” he replied, attempting a joke. 

 

Toph knew it wasn’t funny. That nothing about anything regarding what her friend had been through had been funny in any way, but she giggled to let him know that he was okay. 

 

“I’m not going to tell anyone else about it if you don’t want me to,” she said in an attempt to ease the anxiety she felt pent up in the former prince, and to her relief, his shoulders relaxed and his heartbeat was back to a relatively normal rhythm. 

 

“Thanks,” letting himself feel this thing called Trust that he had abstained from for as long as he could remember. 

 

“You know I hope I get a chance to get a crack at that guy.” Toph’s confident swagger broke the heaviness of the conversation. “Get some payback, you know?” She didn’t see Zuko’s mouth curve into a genuine smile. 

 

“I hope you do, even if Aang doesn’t master firebending, I’m pretty sure my father wouldn’t stand a chance against you.” 

 

“Yeah, no kidding Sparky,” and she smiled as Zuko let out a genuine laugh. 


And no, it wasn’t okay, but it could be less not okay, and the two smiled as they silently recognized that fact, reaching the temple and making their way back to their friends.