Disclaimer: If you think I'm making money off this…you haven't seen how much debt I'm in.
The young man had found them on the side of the road, attempting to ice down a strained muscle in the ostrich-horse's leg. He'd offered to take them back to his house and Iroh had accepted. He lived with his aging mother, who made the best honeydew soup this side of the Fire Nation; his father had died during the siege of Ba Sing Sei. They'd treated the animal and then dined with the peasants (something that seemed to happen more and more often, despite the increasing number of "Wanted" posters in the area). The soup had been cool and delicious, bringing back memories of home for both the travelers, though they couldn't agree on its subtle flavors. The next morning they left, thanking their hosts.
About mid-afternoon Iroh had complained of a headache; Zuko humored his request for a tea break and brewed the tealeaves the young man and his mother had graciously given them. Iroh took one sip of the stuff, then set it down with a little smile on his face.
"What?" Zuko asked, a little anxious; his tea-brewing skills weren't quite up to his uncle's standards.
"Oh, I just recognized something," Iroh said cheerfully. "This tastes just like my soup did last night."
"Honeydew tea?" he said, reaching for the cup.
Iroh slapped his hand away. "No. Yian leaves. I haven't thought about those for at least twenty years," he mused. "Or was it fifteen? Or—"
"The Yian plant is famous for its survival technique."
"Which is?" Zuko demanded.
Iroh smiled gently at him. "Any creature that ingests it will develop headaches and fevers and then die a very painful death." Then his eyes closed, and he fell to the ground.
"I'll kill him," Zuko growled after realizing Iroh was still breathing, hands balling into fists.
Iroh coughed, sitting up. "He probably was suspicious of my knowledge of the siege. Either that or he's in cahoots with the local police and hoping to slow us down. We have to get out of here."
He knelt next to his uncle. "Are you sure you can move?"
"I'll be fine for a little while," Iroh said. "It's a slow-acting poison. Lucky I recognized its flavor, eh?"
"This is no time for joking, Uncle," he said, helping the older man to his feet. "We have to get out of here, and we have to find the antidote."
"Antidote?" Iroh frowned as he mounted the ostrich-horse and Zuko swung up behind him, taking the reins. "Did I say something about an antidote?"
Zuko racked his brain. "No. But we'll find it."
"There might not be one," his uncle cautioned him. "I'm trying to remember. It's been a long time since I've been in the area of Yian leaves."
"Then we'll find a healer," Zuko said.
Iroh straightened. "Can we get another ostrich horse?"
He sighed. "I said I was sorry."
"Maybe it wasn't as slow-acting as I thought. Maybe that was the Yien leaves," Iroh said, lying flat on his back. "Lu Ten, would you ask your mother for another cold compress?"
Zuko hurriedly draped another wet cloth across his uncle's forehead and resumed his frantic pacing. He'd tried everything to bring the fever down, from finding feverfew for him to chew on to dunking his uncle in the river, which increased the old man's shivering without reducing his temperature. The road they were on was deserted, as was the one town they'd passed on the way. And if he didn't do something—if Iroh—
He ground his teeth together and punched the palm of his hand. His uncle was not going to die. He couldn't die. Uncle Iroh was a source of endless knowledge. Somewhere in his feverish ratings, he would come up with the cure. He just needed some prodding.
"Uncle," he said for the fourteenth time, "are you sure you can't remember how to counteract the poison of the Yian plant?"
"Well, I could tell you, Ozai," came the weak response. "But sometimes your big brother needs to keep his secrets. Keep something for himself…"
"I'm not Ozai," Zuko said, coming the closest to outright panic that he'd been all night. "It's me, Zuko. Your nephew. Zuko."
"No tricks, Ozai…"
"I'm not Ozai. Look," he bent over his uncle's cloudy eyes.
"Looks just like Ozai to me."
"I'm not. I'm Zuko. Uncle, please try to remember—"
"Have you stooped so low as to kill me, Ozai?" Iroh murmured.
"I don't even take after him!" Zuko shouted, aiming his cry at the stars. Looking back down, he shook his uncle's shoulders. "Everyone says I look more like Mother."
"Where'd she go?" Iroh said, before his eyes closed.
Zuko's heart stopped.
Then he realized his uncle's was still beating, and that his chest still moved up and down in rhythmic (albeit shallow) breaths. He shook him again. "Wake up, Uncle. Don't go to sleep. Uncle, please—"
He heard voices coming towards them. With a huge heave he dragged the man and the beast back from the road, far enough to give them partial cover from the trees' shadows. He put one hand over his uncle's mouth in case he woke up, and one hand on the hilts of his swords. The ostrich-horse, momentarily disturbed from its grazing, settled its feathers and attacked the grass.
"…so weird," said a nasal female voice.
"I know," said a sweeter one. "They never volunteer to do laundry. Something's up."
"What're we looking for again?"
"Why'd we come so far from the campsite?"
"I wanted to talk to you about—"
"Someone's here," the nasal one interrupted. If he squinted, Zuko could barely make out two figures still on the road, several yards away and with nothing between them and the sky. He couldn't figure out how someone could see him with the trees hanging down over his head.
"Where?" asked the sweet voice, one Zuko knew he recognized.
It was impossible, but the shorter of the two was coming straight towards him. "Right—it's that guy—hey, why don't you say hello?"
The other girl caught up with her companion. "Maybe it's because they're hostile, Toph."
"This guy's really friendly. I don't know about the other one."
"Other one? There're two of them?"
The first girl heard the hint of panic in the second's voice. "What, are you afraid of them? Oh, right," she sniggered, "poor wittle Katawa's awl far away fwom her water—"
"I've got some with—"
It was enough for Zuko. He stood and lit a fire in the palm of his hand, holding it up and out so he could see.
Katara's body was angled at Toph, her torso twisted to look at him with wide eyes. The other girl—the blind one who saw with earthbending, he remembered now—stood more firmly, looking straight ahead. The ostrich-horse shied away from the flame. Katara's eyes narrowed as she looked at her nemesis, then widened as she looked past him and Toph said, "Why's the old man on the ground?"
He had three seconds to think, to weigh his options, to dredge up every last shred of information he had about anything relating to this subject and compare the shreds and analyze possible outcomes and
He had his pride.
The waterbender wouldn't be able to beat him without a significant source of water.
Iroh was dying.
The earthbender would be a challenge.
Zuko I can help
Something in the back of his mind about waterbenders and healing.
He had his pride.
He had shame.
He had his uncle and that was all.
Her eyes were blind and
hers were blue
—why was that comforting?—
She'd beaten him and he'd done the same in return.
They both fought Azula.
Iroh was dying
"He's poisoned," Zuko said flatly, stepping aside to give them
a full view of his shivering, sweating uncle. "Yian
"What?" Toph demanded.
"Oh," Katara said.
This wasn't quite the response he'd been expecting. They didn't look quite as hostile—Toph seemed more concerned about Iroh, Katara's suspicion had ebbed away—but it took every ounce of whatever it was that drove him in this moment for him to say, "Can you help him?"
She froze and he winced and added, "Please, Katara?"
She turned her blue eyes on him in surprise, and in them he saw a familiar innocence and determination, but also a hardness that hadn't been there before. Toph went over to Iroh and touched his forehead. "He's sweating a lot."
The waterbender didn't move.
"Please," he repeated, louder, in case she hadn't heard (because he wasn't quite sure he'd heard it himself).
The girl cocked her head and turned all the way to him. "You know my name," she said, sounding a little surprised, a little shy.
His brow furrowed, but Iroh started moaning and it distracted him from her eyes, and her from his. "How was he poisoned?" she asked, moving to take Toph's place at the old man's side.
"We had a soup, and I guess the leaves were put in it," he said, kneeling next to her and quickly picking up the cloths on Iroh's forehead when she reached for them, one hand held aloft for light. "He said it was the leaves of the Yian plant—"
"I don't know anything about it," she said, checking his vital signs. "Did he mention an antidote?"
"Xia? Is that you?" Iroh asked, his eyes opening once, while Zuko said, "No."
"Who's Xia?" Toph asked.
"And you don't know of one?" Katara asked.
"What happened to her?"
"He only knows about it because he's been here before. She died."
"That's too bad," Toph said. "You're his nephew?"
"Yes," she said, "Zuko—" he knew without knowing how that she would glance at him, and he met her gaze in a silent plea, "—is this man's nephew."
"Iroh," Zuko said.
"Xia?" Iroh asked again.
Katara uncorked her water pouch and bent the water around her hand, frowning a little as Zuko pulled away. The water glowed, shedding much more light than Zuko's hand lamp, sending rippled reflections across her face as she moved it over his head, gently resting her hand on his temples. He stiffened and mumbled incoherently.
And even at his uncle's deathbed, part of Zuko realized his side was pressed along the side of a girl who had beaten him and insulted him and probably hated his guts and yet she was willing to try to save his uncle's life. He couldn't understand it for a minute, but the part of him that pressed against her thought maybe, maybe this was something worth understanding.
"It's not working," she said after a minute, bending the water back into her pouch and laying a hand against his forehead. "Did you try feverfew?"
"There's some in the pack," he said, and Toph dutifully fetched the bag and handed it to him. "We tried it earlier."
"I don't know anything about poison!" Katara half-wailed, rubbing her forehead.
Zuko's head darted up from the inside of the bag, the tiny ounce of hope inside of him flickering as he pulled out the herb. She looked at him again, the fire from his hand throwing dancing shadows on her face, casting her in darkness with the light of the flame in her eyes. He looked back, unable to speak or articulate his needs, hoping she could see the light of the flame in his eyes as well.
Toph was blind, yet she said, "He did say please."
Katara looked at her hands. "There is…maybe—"
"What?" he demanded, his voice a little too harsh.
She stiffened and asked for a bowl, which he quickly found and gave her. "That's a pretty pattern," she commented, pouring a little water from her pouch into the bowl. Then she reached under her shirt and pulled out a strange crystal on a string. As he watched, she pulled the top off and tilted it over the bowl, slowly, slowly, until two little drops dripped down.
"It's from the oasis," she explained, replacing the vial and cupping her hands around the bowl, staring intently until the rippled reflections played across her face. "The water's sacred."
"Thank you," he said, the words leaving before consulting him, a whispered prayer as he gently lifted his uncle's head and she gently poured the water into his mouth.
"I guess he'll be fine," Katara said as the three of them stood on the road, one of her arms reaching across to hold the other's elbow, looking at the ground. "I haven't ever done—"
"The fever's gone," Zuko said, hand clasped around wrist behind his back, staring straight ahead.
"Tell him I said hi," Toph said, kicking at the ground, concern replaced with boredom. "We better be going. They're probably wondering about us."
When no one said anything, she added, "Though with the way they do laundry…"
The silence continued. The night air was completely still; the stars smoldered instead of twinkling, the entire world hushed, waiting. Zuko couldn't explain why it seemed more oppressive than before, why the burden of poisoned soup had given way to this heavier burden of…what?
"What?" Toph echoed his thoughts, more impatiently. "What's going on?"
Maybe she was suspicious, or worried. The Avatar…but what would he do with the Avatar? "I'm not going to try—" he started, his voice hoarse.
"No," she shook her head, swinging herself, "no, it's not that."
His brow furrowed again, trying to figure out something he was blocking himself from figuring out. "Then…"
"…what?" she finished, and they both turned their heads to look at each other.
After a long pause, she said, "That."
He raised an eyebrow at her, still confused; she smiled a little, and there was that thing he blocked trying to get around him again. Then she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, branding the smooth side of his face with hot breath more real than any flame.
"Your uncle will be fine," she whispered into his ear, and then she withdrew, and took Toph's hand, turned, and they walked away.