Toph knows Zuko has a scar on his face. She knows it must be big and ugly for the way the others talk about it. She also knows Zuko must hate it. Hate that it makes him different, that it stands him out and makes people judge him. She knows what that’s like because people judge her too. She can’t see and people think that makes her weak.
Toph is not weak.
She judges Zuko too though, but she can’t judge him on his appearance. And that makes up for something she thinks. She knows Zuko from what his uncle has told her. And she knows Zuko in how he panicked so hard when he burned her that she wasn’t sure if the bile and nausea rising in her throat were hers or his.
She got away from him.
But she wishes it had gone differently.
When Zuko joins them, Toph isn’t as wary as the others think she should be. She’s not scared of the Fire Nation Prince; he’s so soft, and so hurt that the idea of being scared of him makes her want to laugh. They don’t know how terrified he is.
How afraid he is that Katara will slit his throat in his sleep. Or maybe Sokka. Maybe both.
How afraid he is that he thinks he kind of deserves it.
Sokka forgives him. So does Aang. Toph kind of likes the guy so she keeps her opinions to herself.
Katara eventually forgives him too, and Toph feels like she can finally breathe for all the tension dissipating in the air.
Toph forgets Zuko has a scar on his face. It’s not something she sees when she pictures him in her mind’s eye. It’s hard to picture anyone really, she doesn’t know what people are supposed to look like. But she has clearer images of her friends. She knows the important features and the sounds of their voices and footsteps and breathing. She knows what their clothing feels like in her fingers and she is aware of their height and depth.
She forgets Zuko has a scar right up until they attend that play on Ember Island. Everyone is so angry about it, and Toph just listens to the whole thing with exceptional amusement. But there is something wrong with Zuko, and already she can feel that nauseating anxiousness shaking off him. The spiral she knows will come. She can’t say she blames him for it really.
He explains to her what it’s like, watching everything play out in front of him, knowing what he messed up. She can hear him brush it all out with broad strokes and knows that he is thinking about so many specific events, as well as the scale and magnitude of destruction the Fire Nation has caused in the last 100 years. Toph can barely imagine it herself. Just when she thinks she’s got a list, she remembers something else her tutors has taught her.
Zuko probably knows more about it than she does, and its all on his shoulders. His skinny seventeen-year-old shoulders.
His interaction with the kid about his scar has a heat radiating off him that Toph has to lean away from a little. He’s embarrassed. She feels him shuffle as he pulls a hood up and of his face.
“So,” she says, trying to keep her voice casual, “What side is it on?”
Zuko doesn’t answer. The silence is filled with trepidation and shame. Toph ignores the itch to reach out and take his hand in hers, to put it to her face and to touch his in turn. She has to seek his permission, and right now she’s not convinced that he would give it. Or he would, and he wouldn’t mean it. And that feels worse.
“It’s on the left,” he mumbles.
Toph nods to show she heard him. They’re silent again, just for a moment before she asks, “Does it hurt?”
She doesn’t expect his answer.
She doesn’t expect his answer at all. But she understands the sentiment. Of course, it’s been years now. The skin probably feels a bit tight but it’s just a scar. And yet, the pain is still present. People notice Zuko’s scar. Just like they notice Toph is blind.
“Your dad is a real arsehole,” she says, quite loudly actually, with as much cheer as she can infuse into her voice.
Zuko’s answering chuckle is anxious but relieved, “I hear yours isn’t great either.”
She shrugs, “He’s better than Firelord Ozai.”
Zuko elbows her hard in the ribs, “People will hear you,” he whispers furiously but there is a smile in his voice.
She beams and reaches over to brush her fingers over the back of his hand. He turns it palm up, and she taps twice. It’s hers and Zuko’s this one; she doesn’t tap the others like this. It started as a way to tell Zuko he should disappear because Katara’s anger was broaching boiling point. Now, it’s more just an I’m on your side.
He likes that she does it still.
“Why did you ask?” He sounds curious and a little scared of the answer.
Toph turns her face to his in an impression of looking at him. He knows she can’t see, but it’s still important that he sees her face, and her lips when she says this.
“The only useful thing my father ever said to me was that I should know the faces of the people I care about,” she says, talking slowly and clearly, “I don’t know what you look like.”
Zuko breathes out hard, an extended exhalation that sends a shiver through his body and makes it feel like he’s deflating a little, pressed up next to her on the floor.
She wiggles her fingers at him, “I mapped out the other’s faces.”
Zuko shifts uncomfortably next to her and finally seems to make a decision. They’re in the open, and he’s vulnerable and if there is one thing she knows about Zuko is that he absolutely hates to be vulnerable. He’s always afraid of what will spill out when he starts to talk. She can’t say she blames him really. He takes both her hands in his, and his palms are hot and a little sweaty. He’s nervous. She wiggles her wrists out of his grip; she won’t touch him when he’s scared.
“No,” she murmurs to him, “Not here.”
“Why not?” he sounds shocked and offended.
Toph taps his hand again, “Not in the open,” she makes up, pretending it’s her self-consciousness at play, “Not where people can see me.”
Zuko sighs in defeat because he knows she’s lying but he’s accepting this way out, “Okay,” he says.
He stands up and pulls Toph to her feet.
“Later?” he asks.
Toph forces herself to stay awake while everyone else is bedding down. She knows Zuko won’t sleep tonight, not with everything so fresh. What she wants to do could be a welcome distraction for him, but he won’t do it with the other’s watching.
When finally Katara settles in, and her breathing evens out, Toph sits up and stretches, the joints in her shoulders and along her spine spreading and popping deliciously.
Zuko is still sitting up, close to the fire, playing with the flames. She can feel them, even from across the campsite. She rises and walks to him, sits down on the ground next time him, taps his hand.
They sit in comfortable silence.
She doesn’t know what she did to deserve Zuko’s trust like this, but gods she is going to look after this boy. Because that’s all he is really; the Fire Nation prince is just a boy. Like Sokka. Like Aang. And yet none of them have ever had the opportunity to be a child. Not like she has. It makes her so sad sometimes.
Zuko reaches out and takes her hand in his like he can hear what she’s thinking. She squeezes it once and let’s go.
“It’s later,” he says. She nods, she knows he can see it.
When her fingers touch his face, she can feel the difference immediately. His right cheek is soft and smooth, barely stubbled, like Sokka. But his left cheek, around his eye, up into his hairline, its all scar. It’s twisted and angry and mottled. She can feel the ridges that didn’t smooth out, and the too thin skin stretched taut over his fine facial bones. It makes her eyes well up. She refuses to cry.
“Fuck,” she whispers, “Zuko.”
He hums acknowledgement and closes his eyes, his fingers twitching against her knees. He won’t take this away from her, but she knows he is so wound up.
She doesn’t want to ask, she really doesn’t, but the question is just sitting in the back of her throat, on her tongue, pushing the way forward and it’s out before she can stop it, “How?” she asks, “Why?”
Zuko’s laugh is humourless and cold and she wants to wrap him in a blanket and apologise, but also she wants to know. For all she dislikes her parents, she can never imagine them hurting her this way.
“He challenged me,” Zuko whispers, and there is wetness on Toph’s fingers that makes her uncomfortable, “He wanted to duel me. I was thirteen. All he did was flick one flame at me and I didn’t even move. I barely flinched.”
Toph swallows, feeling bile rise in her throat. Zuko continues as though it’s being wrenched out of him, his spine rigid and unyielding, “I could hear laughter. I don’t know who was laughing.”
“The wound went unbandaged for… for days Toph. Until I was out of the kingdom and Uncle forced me to stop and rest and cleaned it,” he swallows heavily, “I’m lucky I didn’t lose my eye.”
She tries to smile, “Eyes aren’t all that handy,” she says, her voice shaking slightly.
He nods in her hands, “I’m partially blind in that eye.”
She nods as though she understands, and she does to a point, but there is still less pain in the absence of her sight than there is for Zuko.
Toph decides to change the subject.
She traces his nose instead, thin and slender. And his lips and chin; the dimple in his right cheek when he quirks his mouth. She traces his eyelashes and his eyebrows and runs her hands through his shaggy, choppy hair. It’s thick and every strand feels like a different length. His ears are small, hidden in amongst his hair - one smaller than the other, shrivelled up, or maybe just missing, like it melted off. She dismisses that thought immediately, filled with an indeterminate amount of rage at Ozai.
His right ear, she can feel, has a small hole in the lobe. She smiles at this and tugs hard on it, “What’s this?” she asks, already knowing but wanting to see him squirm.
And squirm he does, embarrassed in the way that makes her want to poke him in the ribs and remind him he’s just the same as everyone else, still capable of making the absolute shit house decisions teenagers are supposed to make.
“An earring,” he mumbles, and she can hear him blushing, “I lived with sailors for like, two years.”
Toph knows this. He swears as though he lived with sailors for two years. She remembers when she first heard him go on a colourful tirade and, as soon as he had calmed down, demanded to know what other swear words he had hidden up his sleeve.
“Amazing,” she laughs, “You had an earring!”
Zuko laughs and tries to shush her at the same time, “Uncle had one too,” he chuckles.
Almost immediately he grows silent again. Toph wants to remind Zuko that his uncle loves him so much, but it won’t be enough this time. Zuko just misses him. Fiercely. She’s pretty excited to see Iroh again someday too. He made the best tea she’d ever had.
“Do you mind if I stay here a little longer?” she asks, leaning heavily against his side.
He taps her hand this time, “Yeah, that would be nice.”
Toph sighs and turns to brush her face against his tunic, willing her eyes to stop watering up. She’s not usually like this, but gods she’s caring about people now, people that care about her and trust her right back and fuck she loves them. She loves them all so much.
“Hey Zuko,” she mumbles, knowing that the tears just aren’t going to hold, so hiding them against his shirt is safe, “I promise no one will ever hurt you like that again.”
His laugh is soft and shocked and relieved and so fond.
“I believe you,” he whispers back.
And that’s enough for Toph. She goes to sleep, face still pressed to Zuko, the fire crackling in front of them, knowing his face and trusting it implicitly.