Toph wasn't expecting to like Zuko as much as she does. The others are still hesitant around him, and she knows she should be too, given her burned feet, but she’s also immensely curious about the new moody addition to their team.
She ends up spending more time with him than the others do—aside from Aang who trains with him. She was only half joking she told him she wanted to get back at him for her feet; not being able to see fucking sucks. She decides his punishment will fit the crime; until her feet are healed, he will be her feet and eyes.
Meaning, she guilts him into carrying her around.
Toph thinks it’s fucking hilarious. The Prince of the Fire Nation is giving her a piggyback ride. She tells him as such, one day while he’s carrying her around the Temple, not too long after he’s joined their group.
He snorts. “This is far from the most humiliating thing I’ve ever had to do,” he tells her.
“Hey!” She says, smacking his shoulder. “You should consider yourself lucky. You’re carrying the world’s best earthbender. You’ll be telling your grandkids about this moment.”
She hears him huff. “Of course, my apologies. Thank you so much for this humbling experience.”
Toph laughs. The firebender has a sneaky sense of humor, she’s coming to find.
A beat. “So tell me about it.”
“Tell me about all the other humiliating ordeals that are comparable to carrying me around.”
“I didn’t mean it like that—“ he starts to say but she cuts him off.
“Chill, chill. I’m teasing you.”
“Soooo,” she draws out, “you were going to talk about your mysterious past?”
“Right,” he says. She can practically hear him thinking. “Well, there was a period of time when my Uncle and I were on the run from my sister for a while, and we had to live on the road.”
“Wow,” she says. “Man that sounds so cool. I was always locked up in my house, I never got to go anywhere.” She loves moving from place to place--loves being on the road with her friends and finally having the freedom she never received when she was younger.
“Trust me,” he says, “it wasn’t as glamorous as you think it was. We were half starved, and always looking for food. I ended up, ah, having to get creative.”
Toph raises her eyebrows. “Do tell, Sparky.”
“Sparky?” She can feel him turn his head to look at her.
“Hey!” She says, pushing his face forward. “Eyes ahead buddy. Can’t have you dropping me. And yeah, Sparky, cuz you know, you’re a firebender and you have a fiery temper.”
He scoffs. “Hey, I do not—“
She ignores him. “The story, Sparky.” She snaps her fingers, and she hears him grumble under his breath, but continues.
“I ended up, ah—stealing from people. I used to have this old theater mask and I would wear it so no one would know who I was, and go around with my swords.” Toph can feel him get warmer, and she thinks he’s blushing. “I’m not exactly proud of it, but I tried to mainly steal from assholes—oh” he stops. “Sorry.”
“Don’t hold back on my account—Katara’s the one you have to avoid swearing around.”
A chuckle. “Good to know.”
“So you really stole from people? Like, held them up with your swords and stole their shit?”
He coughs, embarrassed. “I mean, like I said, I’m not exactly proud of it.”
“Hey, don’t get all gloomy. That fucking rocks, Sparky.”
“You think it’s cool that I stole from innocent people?” He asks, amusement lining his voice.
Toph pats him with her hand. “Hell yeah! When we were hiding in the Fire Nation, I kept scamming people and Katara got her hair all twisted over it.” She shakes her head. “They could stand to loosen up a bit about things like that. You might be a good influence on them.”
Zuko snorts. “Yeah ok. I’m sure I’ll win over everyone much faster after I tell them about all the times I stole from people in the Earth Kingdom.”
“Hey,” Toph points out, “It’s working with me.”
“Fair point,” Zuko says, his voice light and considering. “...Do you want to hear about the time I beat up some asshole Earth Kingdom soldiers?”
And they fall into easy conversation, joking around lightly, and generally enjoying each other’s company. Toph continues to make Zuko give her piggyback rides even after her feet are healed because hey--maybe she likes his company, alright? He’s had a crazy life she comes to find, and she likes listening to the stories about his time on the run, spent with his Uncle. She’s also pleasantly surprised to find that he holds almost as much disdain for high society as she does. He tells her how, even though he had been excited to go home after so long, suddenly having servants wanting to do everything for him was shocking, but also slightly annoying--which, yeah, Toph can relate to that.
So she keeps pestering him for more piggyback rides, because, unlike what the others seem to think, he’s really just an awkward teenager full of interesting stories and dry humor.
And he seems kind of lonely. So, she keeps hanging out with him, and though he grumbles about it, he never tells her no when she asks for a ride.
“I can tell you favor your right side over your left, despite you being left handed,” Toph says easily, after Zuko and Sokka get done sparring one day.
Zuko pauses, and she can feel his shoulders move in a shrug. “I mean, yeah. It’s not exactly a secret.”
“Why do you, though?” She asks, curious.
“I’m pretty much blind in my left eye,” he says.
“No shit,” Toph replies and Zuko chuckles at that.
“I feel like you swear a lot more than most twelve year olds should,” he says.
“Well, I feel like you’re much more angsty than your average teenager.”
A pause. And then another small laugh, “You got me there,” the prince says. Toph feels some satisfaction at making him laugh; he doesn’t do it often.
“Why did no one tell me you were partly blind! This is a huge bonding point for you and me,” Toph says, throwing her arms up for emphasis.
She can feel the boy shrug—he does that a lot she’s coming to realize. “They probably don’t know. Like I said, it’s not a secret, but it’s not something I talk about a lot—if ever. It’s not...something that’s looked at in a great light in the Fire Nation.”
“That’s some bullshit,” Toph says. “Being blind is the reason why I’m the best earthbender alive!”
“Well, I wasn’t born blind in one eye. It happened after...you know,” he says, trailing off awkwardly.
Toph leans back on her arms and frowns. “No, I actually don’t know.”
There’s an awkward pause before Zuko speaks again. “Right. I forgot you can’t see my face. I have a scar over my left eye.”
“I know that you have a scar, but I’ve always assumed it was something from a weapon or something. It’s bad enough that you can’t see?”
Zuko makes an affirmative sound, and she senses him nodding his head. That boy isn’t the most talkative, and he’s lucky Toph can sense his movements—any other blind person would be lost with him. “It’s pretty big. It’s from a burn, and it takes up half of my face.”
Half of his face? No one tells her anything. “Can I see it?” Toph asks bluntly.
“Can I see it? You know, with my hands?” Toph asks, wiggling her fingers in Zuko’s direction. He doesn’t say anything and Toph gets the sense that he’s shocked at her request. When there still isn’t a response, she gives him an out.
“Listen, it’s fine if you don’t want me to—I was just curious—” but he cuts her off.
“No...no it’s fine. You just—it surprised me. Not many people have, ah, touched it. Go ahead.” And he leans his face towards Toph’s hands, like an offering. She can tell he’s being truthful—he doesn’t mind her asking, but she can still feel his heart beating faster than normal.
She reaches forwards and makes contact with his face—the right side. She traces up to his right eye and feels his cheek. She tells him he has soft skin, and he snorts at that. Then she moves over to the left side of his face, and as soon as her fingers brush past his nose, she feels it. The skin where his scar starts is thicker, and rougher. Tracing down, she notes that he was right—it really does take up half of his face. She notices that he doesn’t have a left eyebrow, and that his left eye doesn’t open all the way, like his other eye. Going farther back, she also feels that his scar extends to his ear.
“Shit, Sparky,” she says, feeling the rough skin that surrounds his ear.
He lets out a humorless laugh. “Yeah. Yeah I know.”
She’s properly annoyed now. She’s heard her friends mention his scar, but they never, never, made it sound like it was this bad.
“Can you hear out of this ear?” She asks, hands still lingering over it.
“I couldn’t for a while after—after I got it. But, some of it came back. It’s not what it used to be,” he says, “but it’s not completely gone either.”
Toph lets out a sigh, and sits back. “Thank you for showing me,” she says.
“Yeah. Thank you for asking before touching it.”
“Of course,” she says, giving him a gentle punch. “I wouldn’t touch your face without asking, I’m not a heathen.”
There’s a beat. “Not too pretty is it?” he says lowley.
Toph lets out an annoyed huff. No way is she letting him get away with that self deprecating bullshit. “In case you haven’t noticed—I literally can’t see. Makes no difference to me. But, if it makes you feel better, your face feels really delicate, so maybe we should start calling you pretty boy.”
She hears a strangled outcry from the prince. “I am not pretty!”
Toph closes her eyes and shrugs. “My fingers don’t lie.” And though he protests again, she can tell he likes the compliment.
Sitting next to him, listening to him, Toph really can’t imagine the boy the gang had described to her. Scary? Please. The boy seems like he’s about to start crying half the time.
She can see the angry part though. But that still doesn’t scare her—if anything, she likes that part of him; he’s really honest about his feelings. She gets angry easily, and sometimes wishes everyone would follow her lead and just vent. Toph also understands his anger--somewhat. He has a scar—a years old scar—that covers half of his face. Regardless of the circumstances, however he got it probably wasn’t fun. Fuck, if she had a facial burn, she’d be as angry as him too. She might even be as scared as he is all the time too.
It baffles her that the others don’t see this. That the others don’t see that Zuko, above everything else, is scared. Like, all the time.
And that’s just the thing, she thinks later that night, listening to the heartbeats of her friends as they settle down to sleep. Zuko is always scared. His heartbeat is always much faster than it should be—and she doubts it’s a firebender thing, because she’s met other firebenders, and their hearts don’t sound like that.
Though she would never admit it, it worries her. She teases Aang by calling him twinkletoes, but she wonders if she shouldn’t give that name to Zuko as well. He’s always tip toeing around—like he’s afraid of making one wrong move.
And, she does get it, to an extent. He did hunt her friends around the world for months, and sided with his crazy sister over them. She gets why he feels the need to be careful, but sometimes it goes further than that. Oh sure, he can be loud; his anger is explosive (abet entertaining sometimes). But there’s something in the way he’s so careful around them, in the way he serves them tea, or in the way he walks at night before he goes to bed. It’s in the way his heart speeds up when he’s pulled into their conversations, or when someone addresses a question towards him.
It’s in the ways she can feel him flinch sometimes when someone shouts or something loud clatters. It’s the fact that he has a scar that takes up half of his fucking face. It paints a larger picture that Toph isn’t sure she likes.
The others don’t trust him—yeah she gets that, but sometimes she just wants to grab them and shake them. She wants to shout at them—he’s scared! Can’t you see how scared he is! Give him a chance!
Sometimes the seeing can be so blind.
She decides, pretty early on, that she’s going to take him under her wing—since no one else seems to want to.
And by taking him under her wing, she means mercilessly teasing him and asking blunt questions.
“Was it hard, learning to compensate for your eye?” She asks, walking besides him, as they look for food to gather.
“What do you mean?” He asks, and she can feel him swing his arm at a tree branch in his way.
“Uh, you’re blind in your left eye?” She asks.
Toph rolls her eyes—hoping she’s doing it right and that Zuko can see it. “Well, take me for example,” she says, putting a hand on her chest proudly. “I was born blind, but one day when I was five, I ran away from home. I came across some badgermoles, and quickly realized they were blind—like me. They taught me how to earthbend—and how to see with my feet.”
Zuko makes no comment, but Toph knows he’s listening, so she continues.
“I can sense vibrations in the ground when I move. I can ‘see’ with my feet. I can see that you’re the tallest among us, I can see there’s a tree to our left and,” she says grabbing Zuko’s arm and pulling him back, “I can see that you were about to trip over that tree root.”
“Wow,” Zuko says. “That’s...really impressive.”
Toph smirks. “I know. Now back to my original question—did you learn to do anything like that to compensate for your vision?”
Zuko makes a noise and Toph knows he’s considering her question. “I mean...I guess not really? I pushed myself even harder in my training, and I eventually I guess...I got used to it. I learned how to fight and guard my left side in a fight.”
“Huh,” Toph says. “So there’s no cool firebending equivalent to help?”
Zuko shrugs. “Not that I know of.”
Toph considers that for a moment, before deciding that she doesn’t like that answer. “Want to find out if there is?” Toph asks, an idea forming in her head.
There’s a pause. Then, “What did you have in mind?”
When they get back to the temple, the two of them make their way an open and secluded area.
“Before we start,” Toph says, handing Zuko a piece of cloth, “tie this around your eyes. Having one good eye is an unfair advantage.”
She hears Zuko chuckle and he ties it around his eyes. “Fair enough.”
Once he’s done, he gets into a defensive crouching position. “What now?” He asks.
“This.” Toph stomps her foot and sends a ripple in the ground directly towards Zuko. The firebender yelps and loses his balance, falling to the ground.
“Listen,” she says as she waits for him to get up. “I’m not gonna go easy on you. If it was easy—anyone would do it. You have to completely give in to your other senses—better yet, dig into your bending. Use what you know and,” she says as she moves to send another rock to trip the prince, “avoid me.”
She once again catches Zuko off guard, but he manages to stay upright and keep his balance, which impresses her.
They spend the rest of the afternoon sparring like that. Toph sends rocks his way, and Zuko tries to dodge and avoid them. Eventually Toph can feel the warm sun-rays of the day slipping away, slowly being replaced by a chill in the air. She can tell Zuko is getting tired, but he hasn’t asked her to stop yet, so she hasn’t.
At one point she moves in to make a close range attack and Zuko manages to jump out of her way before she can properly send something in his direction.
She turns to continue when he calls out, “Wait. Stop for a second.”
“Finally ready to call it quits, Sparky?” She asks. Though she won’t admit it, she’s just as spent as he is, and is ready to go find the others for dinner.
“No it’s not that just—one second,” Zuko says, and it sounds like he’s thinking.
“Toph I want you to sneak up to me, from whatever side,” he asks. “Don’t—don’t earthbend, just come towards me as quietly as you can.”
Toph shrugs, and circles the prince for a moment, before coming at him at an angle behind him on his left side—the side where his hearing is muffled. She’s careful to quiet her movements, and she’s within an arm's reach when Zuko spins around and grabs her, stopping her movement.
The sudden motion causes her to jump a little but she is impressed at his judgement. “Impressive Sparky,” she says, taking her arm back.
“I, uh. I sensed you,” he says, and Toph thinks she can hear a note of cautious pride in his voice. Hell yeah.
“How’d you do it?” She asks, curious.
“I was thinking about what you said before—about sensing the earth around you and how you told me to tune into my bending. It reminded me of the exercises my Uncle used to have me do to practice. He used to have me meditate with candles every night; I would have to close my eyes and sense the fire around me, and let it grow with my breathing.”
Toph nods along to let him know she’s listening. “I used to struggled with it—I didn’t exactly have a lot of patience back then. Anyway,” he continues, “we’re taught that firebending comes from the inside. But we can also bend flames that aren’t our own. To reach out and sense a flame that isn’t yours—it’s harder than creating your own, but possible. So when you approached me earlier, I tried the same tactic, with an adjustment. Instead of focusing on sources of fire, I focused on the sources of heat around myself—and I sensed you.”
“So you felt out where I was because of my body heat?” Toph asks.
“I mean I guess...yeah. Something like that,” Zuko says and despite her blindness, Toph knows he’s blushing. She reaches out and gives him a friendly arm punch.
“That rocks, Sparky!”
“Thanks, Toph,” and she can hear a smile in his voice. “Do you think...we could practice this again?”
“Hell yeah!” Toph says, smiling. She punches a fist into her hand. “Gives me an excuse to beat your ass,” she says and he laughs at that.
“Don’t let Katara hear you speaking like that,” he tells her, and she gives him a shove, but laughs.
“I thought you knew how to cook!” Toph groans, gagging at the smell of the food coming from Zuko’s direction.
“I know how to make tea, I never said I knew how to cook,” Zuko snaps.
“Didn’t you literally work in a restaurant in Ba Sing Se?”
“I worked in a tea shop,” he snaps again. “Any food we sold, we bought from other bakeries.”
Toph, who had been laying down and letting Zuko try to fix the food they had been left in charge of, suddenly sits up, her hand on the ground.
“Shit,” Zuko hisses. She can hear him hastily trying to save dinner. “Do you think it’s that bad?”
Toph leans over to smell the pan and wrinkles her noise at the smell. “Oh man, we’re fucked.”
Right after her declaration, Katara, Sokka and Aang appear back from their trip out to gather more food. Toph can hear Katara gasp and assumes she sees whatever mess was suppose to be their dinner.
“Zuko! Toph! What did you do?” Katara asks, rushing over and swatting Zuko’s hands away. “You were supposed to be in charge of dinner!”
“Oh man,” Sokka groans, walking over to the scene of the crime. “What happened to our food?”
“I thought you could cook?” Aang asks Zuko, who groans.
“Why does everyone think that?” He snaps.
“Well, you did work in a restaurant in Ba Sing Se,” Aang points out.
“It was a tea shop,” Zuko replies unhappily.
“Hey,” Toph says holding her hands up. “This isn’t our fault. If anything, it's your guys’ fault.”
“What?” Katara asks. “How?”
“Helloooo,” Toph enunciates, waving her hand in front of her face, “Zuko and I grew up with personal cooks and we have one good eye between us. You literally could not have picked two worse people to cook dinner.”
“Well, she does have a point,” Aang says, ever the peacemaker. Then, “Wait. One good eye? Zuko’s got two eyes.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Toph asks and Zuko snorts at that, because they both know the airbender is very much not kidding.
“I can’t see out of my left eye,” Zuko says.
“Really?” Sokka asks, then he considers it for a moment and backtracks. “No wait, that...actually makes a lot of sense.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Aang asks, sounding concerned.
Toph can practically hear Zuko rolling his eyes. “It’s not some big secret but why would I announce that I can’t see out of one eye? ‘Hi, Zuko here! I’m half blind!’” Toph snickers at that.
“And you can all see my face, I feel like it’s fairly obvious.”
“...point taken,” Sokka says, then he turns his attention towards the ruined dinner and sighs sadly. “I guess we’ll have to make sure someone who isn’t blind cooks dinner next time.”
“Hey!” Toph says, grabbing Zuko’s arm. “You wish you could be a part of our blind club.”
“What’re you doing?” She asks him and he stumbles, cursing at being surprised. She smirks—good. Keep him on his toes.
“Where did you even come from?” He strangles out.
“I was bored,” she says, ignoring his question and sitting down, facing her head towards his direction. Zuko makes an ‘ah’ sound of understanding, and doesn’t question any further. He stands awkwardly for a moment, before continuing to practice the move.
She sits, picking her toes, and enjoying the comfortable silence. She can feel the form he’s practicing, and it’s familiar.
“Hey,” she asks, “what are you practicing? From what I can feel, it looks like you’re practicing a waterbending move—it feels similar to the stances Katara sometimes goes through.”
“Oh. That’s because it kind of is?” Zuko tells Toph.
She shakes her head at his simple answer. Talking to the teenager is like pulling teeth sometimes. “Explain, Sparky.”
She hears him sigh at the nickname, but he continues on. “It’s a move my Uncle developed after studying waterbenders. It’s used to redirect lightning.”
This peaks her interest. “Whoa! Really? You can do that?”
“I mean—yeah?” He says awkwardly. “My Uncle’s better at it, but I did it once against my father.”
“Sick!” She says and then she thinks about what he just said. “Wait... your father shot lightning at you?”
A pause. “Yes?” He says, like he isn’t sure how to answer her. “I went to tell him I was leaving to train the Avatar—during the eclipse!” He explains at the look Toph sends him. “I, uh, lost track of time though, and as soon as the sun came back out, he shot lightning at me.”
Toph lets out a low whistle. “And I thought I had issues with my parents. Your family’s weird, Sparky.”
He sighs. “Tell me about it.”
He brushes if off, but Toph can tell it bothers him—as it should, she supposes.
She’s not sure why, but for some reason or another, she’s the one he tells about these things.
Although, to be fair, she’s the only one who really asks him questions. She knows Aang’s just as curious as her, but he’s too intimidated to press further sometimes. (Zuko? Intimidating? She has to laugh at that). The others take Zuko’s short, clipped responses at face value, and just assume he’s being mysterious, or standoffish. But Toph knows the truth; he’s just awkward and nervous. The guy got thrown out of his family when he was thirteen and then spent the next three years on a navy vessel with his Uncle as his only friend--it’s not like he really has experience with kids his age. Mysterious. She has to laugh at that too—Zuko’s one of the most open and honest people she knows.
It’s part of the reason she likes him so much; he’s older than her, but he doesn’t try to mother her like so many people in her life, and he doesn’t treat her like a child. And he certainly doesn’t hold back when he swears around her, like he tries to with Aang.
Except that comes back to bite him in the ass later. He slips up when Toph and him are speaking over dinner one night, everyone chatting around a warm fire. He says something that makes her laugh and her response, like it usually is, is to knock him in the arm, but she forgets that he’s holding his dinner, and he ends up dropping his bowl of food.
“For fuck’s sake, Toph,” he says, but with no real malence in his voice.
Before Toph can make a joke about him losing his reflexes, Katara cuts in.
“Zuko,” she says, her voice steely. “Do not talk to Toph like that.”
“I—“ he starts, but he takes a deep breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Ugh Katara, chill out!” Toph huffs. “It was a joke.”
“Well he still shouldn’t be swearing like that,” Katara says.
“Why? Who cares?” Toph asks. “It’s not like it’s something you’ve never heard before.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Katara snaps, and Toph’s had enough.
“Just lay off of him Katara!” Toph snaps right back at her.
“Oh, so you’re going to defend him?” Katara asks, annoyance dripping in her voice.
“Yeah actually, I am!” Toph says, her fists clenched.
“Since when are you and Zuko friends?”
“For a while, actually! And you might be too if you weren’t so stubborn!” Toph says.
“Oh I’m stubborn?” Katara says, the anger in her voice rising. “Well excuse me if I don’t want to forgive the guy who tried to capture and have Aang killed for months!”
“No one’s asking you to forget that—but maybe you could stop treating him like dirt,” Toph grits out, and before their fight can escalate further, Toph stands up, and stomps away from the group.
No one follows her—they probably know she needs to cool down. However, Zuko comes and finds her after she doesn’t return.
“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Zuko tells Toph, sitting down besides her. “I can defend myself.” He doesn’t sound angry at her—just matter of fact.
Toph rolls her eyes. “I know that. But you don’t! You just let her treat you like that, with no retaliation.”
She can hear the rustle of his clothes as he shrugs. “I kind of deserve it. I don’t have a right to tell her how she feels about me—not after everything I put her through.”
Toph can feel her anger spike again. Maybe he’s right, but she doesn’t care. “It’s depressing watching you let her treat you like that! She doesn’t get it—you left behind everything to come help us.”
“It wasn’t much to leave behind,” Zuko says, his voice a mix of amusement and bitterness.
Toph huffs and crosses her arms. “Still. It takes guts to leave your country behind like that—it takes guts to turn against your father—especially if your father is, you know, the evilest man alive.”
That’s something the others don’t get. Toph knows what it’s like to grow up in high society. And while she may be from the Earth Kingdom, she knows just how ruthless and terrifying the Fire Nation can be. To both walk away from your family—and your nation? Someone has to be really determined to do that.
She really meant it when she said Zuko could have turned out a lot worse, given where he grew up and who he had a family (not counting his Uncle, of course).
She hears him laugh dryly at her remark, so she leans against him, offering him comfort. “I mean it. I think what you did was really brave, Sparky. You shouldn’t have to grovel forever.”
He leans into her touch, and she enjoys the warmth coming off of him. “Thanks, Toph.”
The others come around, eventually. It takes a long time for Katara to forgive him, but once she does, their little group feels more like a family again. Katara ends up teaching Zuko how to properly cook, both Sokka and Suki spar with him almost daily, and he and Aang sometimes end up goofing around after their firebending lessons are done.
But, Toph still finds time to boss him around. And she continues to help Zuko train blindfolded, to further hone his skills. It’s fun training with someone who doesn’t hold back.
She’s quietly relieved to find that, now that he’s been accepted, he doesn’t seem so scared all the time. His heart still runs fast, but it no longer feels like he’s going to run away at any moment.
But when they go see that stupid, awful play, and Toph can sense the anxiety and dread coming off of Zuko in waves. She knows that, despite her pep talk at intermission, he’s going to be off for the rest of the night. That boy’s comment about his scar really seemed to spoil his mood, and watching his actor die at his sister’s hand on stage hadn’t helped.
So, when they get back to the beach house and Zuko wanders off, she follows him.
The thing is, it’s really not hard to figure it out, especially if you lived like a noble. There’s a certain order—a certain way of life. But Zuko wasn’t just a noble—he was royalty. He grew up the son of the most powerful man in the world.
When you’re in that position, no one would dare lay hands on you—lest they fear the repercussions of the Fire Lord. Toph knows that there are very few people who could scar the boy—(because the scar was years old, and Zuko must have been young—way too young—when he received that mark) and get away with it. There are very few people who would even dare to attempt to lay a hand on a royal, much less a royal kid.
Toph has heard stories about the brutality of the Fire Lord. She has an idea of who it could have been. She really wants to be wrong.
So, she follows the sound of his too-fast heartbeat, and finds him alone on the beach.
He doesn’t say anything when she sits next to him, but she reaches over and gives his arm a squeeze, to let him know she’s there.
They sit without talking, and instead listen to the gentle crashes of ocean waves.
After a while, Zuko takes a deep breath, like he’s settling himself. Toph is prepared for him to tell her he’s fine, or that they should head back, but instead he quietly says, “I was thirteen.”
She inhales sharply; she knows what he’s talking about. She can feel Zuko’s hands fidgeting in his lap, and can feel his heart beating wildly. Toph doesn’t say anything though; she knows she’s blunt and sometimes she can have a big mouth, but she also knows when to be quiet.
So she sits and listens.
“I was next in line for the throne and kind of bratty, but I really wanted to prove myself, you know?” Toph nods. “So I convinced my Uncle to let me into a war meeting. I figured if I was going to lead a nation at war, I needed to learn as much as possible.” He pauses for a moment.
“It was really boring at first. The generals talked about strategies that went over my head. But then, this one general stood and up he...he proposed this awful plan. He wanted to sacrifice a whole battalion of new soldiers, and I thought he can’t do that!” Zuko laughs dryly, without any humor. “I thought everyone in the room must be thinking the same thing, and that this was a chance to prove myself to my father—and my nation. So I stood up and called the general out on his plan. I felt so sure I was doing the right thing.” He pauses and swallows.
“My father...was not happy that I spoke out of turn in his war room against his generals. To teach me a lesson, I had to fight in an Agni Kai.”
“Agni Kai?” Toph interrupts to ask.
Zuko makes an affirmative noise. “It’s a firebending duel about honor. It’s really traditional.” He plows on ahead.
“I was shocked, but the general was an old man, and I was an overly confident thirteen year old who wanted to prove himself, so I told my father that I wasn’t afraid. The day of the duel, I was ready to face him, and sure I could win but I had...misunderstood.”
It feels like a bucket of cold water is dumped over her.
“I wasn’t facing the general...I was facing my father. And I...I refused to fight him.” He pauses again to take a deep breath. “And that’s how I got this,” and Toph can sense him gesturing to the left side of his face.
Toph can hear the unspoken words between them, can imagine the horrific details he’s leaving out and is selfishly glad she doesn’t have to hear Zuko speak them out-loud—for both of their sakes.
She feels sick. She doesn’t have a great relationship with her parents, but they would never do something like that to her. Stalk her across the world? Yes. Kidnap her? Sure. But purposely burn her face?
She cannot imagine that.
“I passed out after, and when I woke up, I was banished and the only way I could return home was if I captured the Avatar.”
“Shit,” she says eloquently.
“You were thirteen,” she says, like that means anything, like it’s an apology or a revelation.
“I was thirteen,” he affirms.
“Why didn’t you tell us the reason you chased Aang around the world?” She asks him, and he sees her double meaning.
He sighs. “It doesn’t excuse my actions, and I didn’t want any of you to think I was trying to make excuses.”
She supposes he’s right, but fuck, she thinks, they might have accepted him earlier if they had known.
“Besides, it’s not exactly something I like to talk about. I don’t want any special treatment or pity from anyone because of it. It’s something shitty that happened to me, but it’s something that happened a long time ago. It’s something I’ve come to terms with.”
Toph wants to call bullshit on that last part—three years isn’t that long ago. But then again, just a few months ago she was still at home, under the feet of her parents. A few months ago feels like a lifetime.
She can, however, understand the pity part. She hates being pitied because she’s blind—hates being treated like a fragile piece of glass just because she’s not like everyone else.
“That makes sense,” she says to him, then she thinks for a moment.
“Zuko,” she says slowly, “you know you didn’t deserve that, right?” She’s not good with feelings, but she thinks he needs to hear this. She has a sinking feeling that it’s something he might not have heard before.
He sighs again. “Yeah, I know that.” A half lie. “Now I do at least.” The truth. “But it took a long time to realize it.”
“Good,” she says, and they slip back into a comfortable silence, but just for a moment.
Until Toph breaks it once more.
“Man, no offense,” she says, trying to lighten the mood, “but this makes me all the more eager to take down your dad.”
He laughs once at that, and the tension that had been hanging between them dissipates, and Toph is relieved.
“No offense taken,” he says. “My dad’s an imperialist monster who burns kids, I don’t have any mixed feelings about taking him off the throne either.”
She feels closer to him, after that. Though she’s still jealous that everyone else has had a life changing field trip with him but her.
It’s a hot day, and most of the gaang is on the beach, but Katara and Sokka are huddled, reviewing the money situation. Katara—as usual—is worrying about whether they’ll have enough money for the rest of their time in the Fire Nation and suddenly Toph gets an idea.
It isn’t a life changing field trip but...it might just be more fun than that.
She wanders back into the house, where Zuko is located. She finds him in his old room, and from what she can tell, it looks he’s digging through his old closet.
Hearing her come in, he half twists his body back. “Hey Toph,” he says. “What’s up?”
She points in his general direction. “Get your swords and something to cover your face. We’re gonna go pull a scam.”
She walks over to his bed, and sits down. “You heard me!” She says with all the conviction she can muster—which is—to be fair, a lot. “Katara’s all worried about not having enough money, and more importantly,” she emphasizes, “I’m bored.”
“Toph,” he says, sounding exasperated, “we can’t do that.”
“Why not? We’ve both done it before.”
“Yeah but we’re both wanted people! I’m literally wanted for high treason.”
“That didn’t stop you from breaking into a Fire Nation prison with Sokka,” she points out.
“That was different—”
Toph stands back up, and dusts herself off and starts to make her way towards the door. “Fine! Fine. I didn’t peg you as a chicken, but I guess people change.”
He sputters, “Hey, I’m not—”
She cuts him off again, and waves her hand at him. “You don’t have to explain yourself—I get it! You’ve lost your edge.”
She starts to make her way out of the room but stops when he calls out.
“Wait!” He says and Toph smiles.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Excuse me sir,” Toph says in her best helpless little girl voice to the man in front of her. “I seemed to have misplaced my purse—it’s full of money that my parents trusted me to look after. But…I’m blind, and I...I lost it.”
That gets the man’s attention, Toph can feel him move closer to her, probably to look and see if she’s actually blind.
She puts her face in her hands, and tries to work up some tears. “Please! It had so much money in it, and I don’t want to disappoint my parents.”
The man seems to buy it. “Of course I’ll help you!” he says, but his tone of voice is almost too sweet. Ding Ding Ding! We may have a winner, Toph thinks.
“Where did you last have it?”
“Oh thank you so much, sir!” Toph says, and she points vaguely in the direction of where she planted a bag of money earlier. “Somewhere over there, in that alley I think.”
“Well, why don’t we look there?” the man says, and they head towards the alley. She can tell the moment he spots the bag, and can sense him head over and pick it up. Behind his back, she smirks.
“Oh, do you see it?” she asks, her voice laced with fake worry.
The man slides the bag into his pocket, and turns back to Toph. “I’m sorry miss, but there’s nothing here.”
“Are you sure about that?” she asks, and she can hear Zuko jump down off a nearby roof behind the man, swords drawn.
The man jumps and flings himself around, but Zuko is fast, and has him pinned against the wall in a manner off seconds, swords at his throat.
“Stealing from a bind girl? That’s low,” He says, and the man starts to stutter.
“No! It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.”
“Oh really?” Zuko asks, pressing in closer, and Toph laughs at the man's indignant yelp. “Then what’s in your pocket?”
The man quickly takes out the bag and throws it in Toph’s direction. “There! I’m sorry. Now can you please let me go?”
Zuko doesn’t let up his swords. “I don’t know, why don’t we let her decide? What do you say,” he asks Toph, “Should we let him go?”
Toph smirks again. “Nah. I think he should empty the rest of his pockets first. We’ll see how forgiving I feel after that.”
The man gulps.
When they return later, Zuko is very careful to slip back in the house without the others noticing his swords or the mask in his possession. At dinner that night, when Toph dumps several bags of coins in Katara’s lap, the waterbender just sighs.
“Do I even want to know?” she says.
“Probably not,” Zuko tells her.
There’s a morning, close enough to the arrival of Sozin’s comet that they’re getting anxious, but far enough away that they can still ignore their nerves.
Toph is still in her pajamas, and she wanders into the courtyard, where Zuko is meditating. She’s not usually a morning person—she prefers to sleep in--but had woken up early and couldn’t fall back asleep.
She walks over to the prince, and sits down next to him, enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun. Zuko doesn’t say anything, and she assumes his eyes are closed. They usually are, Aang had told her, when people meditate.
No one else is up yet, so the only noises around them are the distant crashes of waves and the chirping of birds. It’s peaceful—or it is, until she hear’s a loud snort and then Zuko starts laughing.
Toph scrunches her eyebrows together, but before she can ask what’s so funny Zuko goes “Toph—your hair!”
It is way too early to deal with this shit. She scowls and crosses her arms. “And what is so funny about my hair?”
Her intimidation is lost on the prince as the bastard giggles. She shoves him hard enough to push him over.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he says composing himself. While he’s not laughing anymore, there’s still a smile in his voice. “It’s just—well, I’ve never seen bedhead that bad before.”
She huffs and stands up. “Whatever dude. Everybody gets bedhead.” Ugh, she is so not a morning person.
“Oh, Toph—wait! Don’t leave,” Zuko says, grabbing her arm. “If you want, I could...do your hair for you?” he asks.
She raises her eyebrows at him. “I don’t need any help doing my hair,” she tells him.
“I—that’s not what I was trying to imply,” Zuko says, sounding embarrassed, and Toph sighs but sits back down.
“Do you even know how to do hair? Didn’t you have servants to do that for you?” But even as she says that, she’s moving to sit in front of Zuko, giving him access to her hair.
“I know how to do braids and buns,” he says, running his hands through her hair, trying to tame it. “When we were younger, Azula used to make me do her hair for her.”
“Really?” Toph asks. That doesn’t match up with the image she has in her head of the Azula she knows.
Zuko chuckles, and he parts Toph’s hair into two sections, and starts to brain the hair against her head on the left. “Yeah. I think part of it was her wanting to boss me around. But I think she was also jealous. My mom taught me how to brain with her hair, and one day Azula saw and demanded I give her braids too.”
“Huh,” Toph says. Normally Zuko’s stories about his family aren’t so tame—half the time they’re enough to make her skin crawl.
He continues his work in silence. His fingers are a little clumsy, but sure. Toph closes her eyes and takes in the sun. When he’s done with her left side, he moves on to her right, and he ties the short ends of the two braids together with a ribbon Toph has on hand.
During breakfast, Katara and Aang compliment her hair, and when she tells them Zuko did it, she swears and she can feel the heat of his blush from across the room.
It’s a few days after the end of the war, and they’re all still staying at the royal palace. While they’re all excited to start changing the world, none of them are quite ready to separate. In an attempt to stall the inevitable, they’ve all agreed to stay in the Fire Nation until Zuko is fully healed from his injury.
The thing is, Toph can’t sleep tonight. She’s feeling restless, and so she’s making her way around the palace, quietly waving away any guards or servants she comes across.
She finds herself heading towards the palace gardens. She may not be able to see any of the plants, but she wants the fresh air, and she wants to feel solid earth beneath her.
She’s not expecting to find someone already occupying the gardens, but as she draws closer, she smiles as she realizes who it is.
She purposely russells a nearby bush in order to announce her presence. The other individual turns at the noise. “Ah, hello miss Toph,” Iroh says.
Toph smiles again, and approaches the older man who is--of course--drinking tea. “Hey.”
“Please, please, come join me. It is a perfect night to share tea with someone,” he says, handing her the cup. “The stars are especially bright tonight.”
She takes it, gratefully, letting the warm of the cup work its way through her fingers and through the rest of her body. “Eh,” she says, “not much of a view to me.” Iroh laughs at her joke.
“This takes me back,” Iroh says kindly. “I remember when you were kind enough to humor me and share a pot of tea.”
Toph smiles. “I think we both know, I needed that talk just as much as you did.”
He hmms in response, and sips his tea. “So,” he asks. “What is keeping you up at such a late hour?”
“I could ask the same of you,” and she sips her tea as well. It’s floral and comforting. He laughs, but does not relent. “I believe I asked you first.”
She shrugs. Fair enough. “I guess I just couldn’t sleep,” she says, shifting the cup in her hands. “I keep thinking about the future.”
Iroh makes a considering noise. “You are nervous about what is to come.” It’s not a question.
“I guess,” she says. “I just...don’t know what I’m going to do. Everyone else has such clear futures. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know I want to visit my parents, but I’m never going to live with them again. I guess…” she trails off, but Iroh doesn’t say anything, and instead leaves the space between them open for her answer.
“I guess I don’t know where I’m needed,” she says.
“Ah,” Iroh says, pouring her more tea, despite the fact that she’s only drank half of her cup. “An unclear future is a scary, and sometimes confusing thing. However,” he says, putting his teapot back down, “it can also be a great blessing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your future is open, and free, and you can do whatever you want with it. Your possibilities are almost endless. And,” he adds, “you are still so young, which means that you have so much time to try many things and figure out what is right for you.”
Toph considers his advice, and sips her tea. “I guess you’re right. When you put it like that, it sounds a lot more exciting.”
She can’t be sure, but she has a feeling that Iroh’s smiling when he tells her, “I’m glad I could be of help. I would also like to offer this: when you have friends, you are always needed. Sokka, Katara and Aang, I’m sure, will always need you and welcome you with open arms. And, you are always welcomed in the Fire Nation, Zuko thinks the world of you, and enjoys having you around.” She feels her cheeks heat up at the compliment and stubbornly rubs away tears that are not in her eyes.
“And although he would never admit it, I think he enjoys having someone around who can properly boss him around,” Iroh says with a laugh, and Toph silently agrees with him.
There’s a pause in the conversation before he speaks again.
“I want to thank you,” he says seriously, “for being such a good friend to my nephew. He shares a bond with all of you, but the bond between you two is special. He thinks of you like a sister, and in many ways, you have been more of one to him than Azula ever was.”
Toph feels her throat tighten and she’s afraid of what will happen if she tries to speak, so she stays quiet. She fucking hates feelings. Iroh is kind enough, however, to ignore her emotional crisis, and just sips his tea.
She finishes her cup in silence, and stands, suddenly feeling drained and finally ready for bed.
“Thank you for the tea,” she says.
“Of course,” Iroh tells her. “And you thank you for your company. I hope we can share another cup of tea soon.”
A few weeks later, when everyone is finally leaving and heading on their way, Toph seeks out Zuko.
She needs a favor. And although she hates asking for help, she knows almost no one understands that about her better than Zuko.
Doesn’t make it any easier.
She finds him in his study, and by now his guards know that anyone on team Avatar has express permission to barge in on the Fire Lord whenever they please.
Which is exactly what she does.
It takes a second for Zuko to acknowledge her; she’s pretty sure he has his head stuck in some important political scroll.
He does, however, eventually realizes she’s in the room. “Oh hey Toph,” he says, sounding happy to see her. “What’s up?”
She flops down in the chair in front of his desk, and he snorts at her lack of grace. “I need a favor, Sparky.”
“Oh?” He says again. “What is it?”
Ugh. She hates this. “Remember how I invented metalbending?” She asks Zuko.
“Obviously,” he says, a smile in his voice.
”Obviously,” she parrots back. “Well, I got to thinking, it isn’t exactly fair that only I get to know something so awesome. So, I figured...I should probably share my skills with others.”
“Where are you going with this, Toph?” Zuko asks.
“I want to open a school to teach metalbending,” she finally spits out.
“That’s great Toph!” Zuko says. “I think that’s a really good idea.”
“I know,” Toph says with the wave of a hand. “But that’s where my favor comes in. I kind of...need help opening the school. You know, money. And shit like that.”
She could, theoretically, ask her parents for the money, but she doubts they’d give it to her. Also, she really really doesn’t want to ask for their help.
“You want help funding the school?” Zuko asks.
“Well, I mean—”
“You have it,” Zuko cuts her off. “Whatever you need, I’ll get it organized for you.”
Toph blinks. “Really? Just like that?”
Zuko coughs awkwardly. “I mean...yeah. I really do think it’s a great idea, and that it would be beneficial for everyone if you can pass on this new type of bending. Plus,” he adds, “I’ve seen you with Aang; you’re a great teacher, Toph.”
Her throat feels tight but she swallows that down. Damn emotions, what’s with her lately?
Still, she really means it when she says “Thank you, Zuko.”
“Of course,” he tells her. “That’s what family’s for.”