Walking a Mile in Someone Else's Feet
Author's Note: I wrote a oneshot! An actual oneshot! The mind boggles. There is a sort of sequel to this already written and a third one in progress but all of them can stand alone so I remain firm in calling this a oneshot. Yes...right...so I don't own Avatar, clearly. If I did, Zuko would have ended up with Toph instead of Mai. Not much romance here but there are hints of it...or Toph may just get a kick out of making Zoro stammer and blush. Set in mid season three. Please review and let me know what you think! Thanks!
On with the fic...
The Western Air Temple was beginning to grow quiet as Toph sat near the fire. She had her hands pressed to the ground at her sides; supplementing the vibrations her burned feet could pick up through the bandages Katara had insisted on. She was 'watching' the rest of the camp as they prepared to go to sleep. Katara was bending water from the fountain into the pot she had used to make dinner, cleaning it. Sokka was yawning as he finished cleaning his meteor sword and packed away his supplies. Aang was dozing against Appa's side after a long day of training and most of the other members of their party had already retired for the night.
However, the newest member of their little Gaang showed no interest in moving to the sleeping chambers. Zuko sat opposite the blind earthbender, seemingly lost in thought. He'd only joined them earlier that day but Toph had to admit she found the guy interesting. He wasn't anything like Aang's other companions. For one thing, he could be almost as light on his feet as the airbender; which was saying something since most of the time Aang felt as if he might float away any minute.
The other thing about the traitor prince that Toph couldn't help but find intriguing; was how little she actually knew about him. He didn't talk much, when he wasn't rambling apologies; and everyone else was rather reluctant to talk about him...or to him for that matter. In fact, all she'd really managed to figure out so far was that he was hopelessly inept at dealing with people and that Katara really, REALLY disliked him. The latter point was made painfully clear every time the water bender so much as looked in the older teen's direction. Toph could even hear her teeth grinding sometimes.
Like now. "Toph."
"I'm going to sleep. You shouldn't stay out here." Toph could feel Katara's stance stiffen as she glanced at Zuko. "You can't see very well with your feet bandaged and someone could take advantage of that to sneak up on you."
Toph felt Zuko's heart thump almost painfully as he looked away from the glare Katara was no doubt shooting his way; if her tone was any indication. For some reason she wasn't quite able to pin down, Toph decided she didn't like that sickly thump. Zuko was miserable; even if she was the only person who could tell. Nobody deserved to be put down all the time; especially somebody she had personally verified to be telling the truth about his intentions.
"Technically, I can't 'see' at all ever, but I'll be fine." Toph replied with a roll of her eyes before she grinned. "Besides, His Royal Hotness here will make sure nothing sneaks up on us." She jerked her head at the firebender, not wanting to sacrifice the vision her hands were currently providing.
She was glad for that, as she was able to feel Zuko's reaction more acutely. His heart sped up in surprise and he started from his slouched position, turning to look at her suddenly.
Katara took a breath to protest but thought better of it; having learned to pick her battles when it came to the stubborn earth bender. Instead she stormed off in a huff; the water in the fountain splashing in response to her frustration at Zuko's continued presence.
A few minutes passed. The crackling fire became the only sound as Sokka followed his sister's lead and dragged a half asleep Aang off to bed as well. Toph could feel Zuko shifting uncomfortably; as if he wanted to say something but it seemed he couldn't find the right words. She had a feeling that her usual teasing methods of encouragement would make the taciturn young man clam up even tighter so she mustered all the patience she usually reserved for bending battles and waited. The quiet stretched on for so long, she began to think he would chicken out and say nothing after all.
"Thank you." His soft, gravelly voice caught her by surprise but she recovered quickly.
"For what?" She asked lightly, turning her clouded eyes in the general direction of his head.
"For...for...I don't know...just...oh, nevermind." He stammered and scratched his head as he spoke, turning away as he gave up.
Toph chuckled slightly, unable to help it. "Oh, maybe you meant 'Thanks for not treating me like a three headed platypus-bear with distemper.' Because if that's what you meant, you're welcome." She pitched her voice to impersonate his scratchy one, as she supplied him with a very loose idea of the words he had been unable to find, and finished with a friendly grin.
He looked back at her and she could feel him struggling to decide how to take her teasing tone. Finally she felt his muscles relax just slightly and he even let out a huff of amusement.
"Right...I think." She could hear the weak smile in his voice. "So, um...why?"
Toph shrugged. "I can tell when people are lying. You haven't lied about anything since you showed up here offering to train Aang. That's good enough for me."
"Hn." The fire bender snorted with little humor. "That must be handy. I could've used that skill on my sister when we were younger."
"Actually..." Toph blushed a little. "No, you couldn't. I've met your sister and I couldn't read her at all. Although to be fair, I'm really not sure she's even fully human."
"You're not the first one to say that." Zuko admitted grimly, thinking of Azula and the many atrocities she had committed. She would have to be stopped at some point and he knew it wouldn't be easy.
Toph interrupted his dark thoughts. "So, tell me about yourself."
"What? Why? What do you want to know?" He asked nervously.
"Well, I know the basics. Fire Nation's Crown Prince, turned exile, turned fire bending teacher for the avatar...seventeen years old, male, tall...well, taller than me at least, weight a bit below average, voice like honey over gravels..." She snapped her mouth shut quickly, hoping the firelight would cover her blush.
Zuko stared at her for a minute, trying to decide if she was making fun of him again. He'd never heard himself described that way; though admittedly his voice wasn't one of the things people tended to notice first when they saw him.
Uncomfortable with the silence after her slip of the tongue, the blind girl pressed on when it became obvious the fire bender had no idea how to respond. "I mean, um...what do you look like? The description Sokka gave me when they first mentioned you was kind of...sparse."
Zuko thought for a few seconds and then shrugged. "I...um...I have dark hair and gold eyes. That's pretty common in the Fire Nation."
"Right...Guess I should probably mention that I've been blind since birth, so colors equal blah, blah, blah." She sighed.
Zuko scratched his head. "Right...sorry. Um...I don't really know what to tell you...I..um...really try not to look at myself much." He finished in a mumble that Toph would have been hard pressed to hear if she had been anyone else.
"Why?" Toph frowned in confusion.
The fire bender paused; the tension in his muscles telling the earth bender how uncomfortable he was with the topic. "I...I have a scar...on my face." He finally said slowly.
"Really? How bad can it be?" Toph raised an eyebrow, digging her hands into the dirt in an effort to see him better though the details of his face were beyond her skill to perceive that way.
"Bad." Zuko grated out.
"Oh." Toph hesitated but curiosity got the best of her. "Well...um...can I touch your face?" She asked, holding out her hand cautiously. "It lets me feel more detail than I can with my feet. It's how I see the people I'm closest to."
"Close?" Zuko was torn between his need to be accepted by the Avatar's group of friends, and his desire to hide his scar from the one person who didn't have to look at it. "I...okay, I guess."
Even as he gave his reluctant permission, the blind girl felt him turn away from her outstretched hand, but Toph wasn't one to be easily deterred once she had set her mind to something. She slid herself over beside the ex-crown prince with a subtle earth bending gesture that kept her from having to stand on her tender feet.
Zuko forced himself to turn and face the much smaller bender; closing his eyes as she reached towards him. He didn't want to see the revulsion she was sure to feel when she 'saw' him.
Toph moved slowly, mindful of the last time she had startled the volatile young man. Not that she thought he would fire bend at her now; but from the tension in his body she could tell he was looking for any way to get out of letting her do what he had just agreed to. She started somewhere safe, placing her hands on his shoulders and letting them rest there until she felt some of his muscles relax just a bit. Only then did she let herself begin exploring his features with gentle hands. She ran her fingertips lightly up the sides of his neck, noting the way he twitched and tried to squirm away.
'Heh, Princess is ticklish.' She thought wickedly. 'I'll have to remember that.'
Still, she didn't want to risk him pulling away before she got to look at his face, so she pressed on quickly. Her hands traced his chin, feeling just a hint of sparse stubble on the smooth skin. Then she worked up his jaw line until her right hand hit the edge of something that shouldn't be there. 'That must be the scar.' She thought, turning her full focus on the information she was gathering with her other hand.
Zuko kept his eyes tightly shut and fought the urge to jerk away as Toph brushed against the sensitive skin around the edge of his scar, but she stopped there and continued to study the undamaged side of his face instead. He didn't blame her.
Slowly, Toph mapped out her mental picture of Zuko. His face was more angular and fine boned than she would have guessed but he had a strong jaw. His hair, where it brushed against the back of her wandering hand, was surprisingly soft and fine, and wilder than his uptight attitude would have led her to imagine. His eye was closed and she felt the flutter of movement beneath the lid as she ghosted her fingers over it. His eyebrow was thin and arched, and she could easily imagine it put to good use during his frequent expressive silences.
Zuko had begun to relax under her questing touch. Her hands were gentle and he let himself hope she'd skip over the scarred side of his face and simply use the good side as her mental image of him.
His eyes flew open when he felt the first movement of her right hand in several minutes, and he nearly pulled away. Only the intent expression on the younger girl's face kept him rooted as she began to 'look' at his scar. He frowned self-consciously. The scar tissue was unpleasant to look at but he knew it was equally jarring to feel. It was smooth in places like melted wax, while in other spots it was rough and pocked from blistering. The skin was also a lot more sensitive than most people might guess from looking at it; making him acutely aware of every movement of the girl's gently exploring fingers.
Toph's expression remained neutral as she traced each curve of the half melted features. She was shocked by the severity of the damage. To leave a scar like that, the injury itself must have been excruciating. Still she kept going; determined not to waste the trust Zuko had given her in allowing her to 'see' him. Her questing fingers found his eyes were now open and a quick check with both hands told her that the left eye didn't quite open all the way due to the skin around it being heavily damaged.
"So, can you see out of this eye?" She asked curiously, tapping the left side of his face gently to indicate which eye she meant; though she doubted he'd have had any trouble figuring out her question even without the gesture. There was no hint of pity or disgust in her voice.
She felt him shut both eyes again and he took a deep breath before answering, as if he was debating the wisdom of it. "Not really." He admitted finally. "Just impressions of light and shadows, no details, no color...and before you ask, I've only got about half my hearing in the left ear."
Toph nodded to acknowledge the information he was sharing. She was actually surprised he had any use of the eye at all. Eyes were delicate instruments and it would be difficult to do so much damage to the lid without affecting the eye as well. She reached around to his ear at his further confession and immediately realized why he had preempted her question. It was less like an ear and more like a nub of scar tissue with a hole in the middle. "Do the others know?" She asked quietly.
"About the scar, yeah. They'd be hard pressed to miss it." He forced an awkward laugh that failed almost as quickly as it began. Toph started to protest his purposeful misunderstanding of her question when he sighed and pressed on. "About me being nearly blind and half deaf on that side, no. They never asked and I haven't felt the need to share." The young prince shrugged. "I don't like to talk about it...and we haven't exactly always been on friendly terms in the past. It isn't information I would want to be common knowledge to my enemies...though I guess it probably is now. Azula knows...and father...so they most likely told the fire nation troops hunting for us..." He trailed off as he realized he was rambling.
Toph grinned, pulling him from his dark thoughts once again as she had finished her exploration of his face at last. "Don't worry Princess. Your secret is safe with me. I won't tell Twinkletoes or the others."
"Thanks." He said seriously.
Toph lowered her hands to the ground again but didn't return to her seat on the other side of the fire. The silence lingered between them for several minutes before she decided to break it.
"You know...you're actually a pretty handsome guy." She said slowly, feeling the need to reassure the older teen for reasons she didn't entirely understand.
Zuko chuckled and the rare sound tickled like the crunch of dry leaves against Toph's ears. "If you say so. Thanks."
"No really. You have a nice face and I've felt a lot of faces. I bet the girls were all over you back home."
That made the firebender go quiet. "Not really...I mean, there was one...but it doesn't matter now anyway."
"Oh...Sorry." Toph found herself apologizing, not entirely sure why she felt like she should.
She felt him shrug and they fell back into silence again.
This time Zuko was the one to break it. "You're gonna be really pretty someday." She was close enough to feel the heat of his blush as he mumbled the compliment.
"Sure, just so long as dirt comes into fashion." The earthbender giggled and was rewarded with another dry laugh from the taciturn young man.
"It's getting late. We should probably go to sleep soon."
"Yeah, you've gotta be up with the sun to train with Twinkletoes." She agreed with a grin.
"I'd be up with the sun anyway." He said mildly, shrugging. "It's a firebender thing."
"Oh." Toph blinked as she processed the words. "That's neat. Kind of like a built in wake up call."
"I guess so." He shrugged. She felt him shift awkwardly in place as he contemplated his next words. "Um...would you like me to carry you to your room?" He asked cautiously.
Toph blinked. Sokka had been the one to carry her around since her feet had been burned. The water tribe siblings hadn't trusted Zuko not to do something else to injure her further.
"I mean...if you'd rather, I can go get Sokka...or Katara to help you...or if you want to walk that's fine too." He backpedaled hastily at her hesitation.
"I'd really appreciate the lift." The younger girl said with a smile, holding out her arms to him as he stood.
Toph was small but she was all muscle, so it surprised her how easily and smoothly he swung her up onto his back. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he tucked his hands under her knees at his sides as he started to walk. Toph felt the heat from the fire recede as they moved towards the sleeping chambers and she snuggled closer to the firebender's back for warmth since he didn't seem to have any trouble with the chilly night air.
She was almost asleep when she felt him stop. "We're here."
"You can go in. Just drop me on the bed." She ordered sleepily.
Zuko rolled his eyes, pondering how he was going to get the heavy door open without putting the girl down. Lucky for Toph, he was a skilled martial artist. She barely felt him move as he used his foot to support her weight and pulled the door open with his freed hand, before settling her quickly back into her previous position and moving into the room.
He set his sleepy burden down on the bare stone slab she used for a bed and she patted it as if smoothing the lumps out before stretching languorously and yawning.
The young man moved towards the door but a small hand on his wrist stopped him.
"Thanks." Blank green eyes almost glowed up at him in the moonlight streaming through the window.
Zuko could tell she wasn't just talking about the piggy-back ride. "No. Thank you." He replied softly, a small smile in his voice as he freed his hand and moved to the door. "Goodnight Toph."
"Night, Hot Stuff."
His crackling laughter filtered back to her as he moved towards his own room. The blind earthbender tracked him as he went, a grin spreading across her own face.
Just the Beginning...
Author's Note: This story burbled out of my brain just because I had the curious thought that Zuko could be blind in that eye and I figured Toph would be the only one blunt enough to ask him about it. However, it turned into something that is more about Zuko finally finding someone who accepts him without judging him for his past or expecting him to be anything but himself. He needs that, and Toph knows all too well what it feels like to be pressured into pretending to be something you aren't so she seems like a good one to give him that. Plus, she's ornery enough to hang out with him just because the others refused to do so when he first joined them.