Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar. Rats.
Toph settled back against the fountain and watched with her whole body as Sokka and Zuko began their daily sparring practice. Ever since Zuko and Aang had returned from the Sun Warriors temple, Zuko had begun his day—at dawn, of course—by dragging Sokka out of bed to spar with him. Beating Sokka at swordplay, he teased, put him in a good mood to teach Aang firebending.
She placed both hands and feet on the stone floor of the courtyard so she could have the best "view" possible. Each movement, each change of footing sent subtle vibrations through the rock that only Toph was sensitive enough to read and turn into three-dimensional pictures of the action. Each time sword met scimitar, she could feel as well as hear the impact.
When she concentrated, she could even tell who felt as if they had the advantage by the subtle changes in their heartbeat and breathing. Most of the time, though, she just enjoyed the show.
It was especially exciting because both Sokka and Zuko were very athletic and incorporated jumps and leaps from stone to stone as their practice ranged over the entire courtyard. Each time one of them left the earth in a leap, Toph would temporarily lose track of them, only to pick it up again the instant they re-contacted the ground. Those little seconds of suspense were always exciting because both of the boys were very inventive and she never knew just where they'd show up.
Right now, they'd been chasing each other around the fountain for about 20 minutes and each of them was sweating, hearts pounding.
"You're doing well, today," Zuko called out. "Only a few more matches and you'll be ready to move up to junior level."
"Ha, ha, very funny," retorted Sokka between strikes. Toph could feel him redouble his efforts to land a hit on Zuko. She felt a little sorry for him because she could tell that Zuko, though pressed, was not really concerned.
As they moved over the fountain, each leaping from one side of the stone ring to the other, Toph felt something shift. Zuko began to lose a little of his momentum and his heart rate climbed. She could see him shake his head as if to clear his vision. Then, without warning, Sokka slipped in on his left side and landed a hard blow to Zuko's ribs with the flat of his sword.
"Ha! Who's the junior now, Hotman?" Sokka laughed and did a little victory dance, while Zuko stepped back, rubbing his left side, then his left eye.
"What's wrong?" Toph asked. "Something in your eye?"
"No, it's just watering." Watering was an understatement. Tears were pouring out of Zuko's left eye.
"Oh, the poor wittle baby is crying," Sokka teased, too elated by his victory to be even the least bit sympathetic.
"Shut up, Sokka," Toph replied sharply, then turned to Zuko. "You should let Katara take a look at that eye." She could tell by the way he flinched a little that Zuko still wasn't comfortable enough with Katara to ask her anything, so she took matters into her own hands.
Within a few minutes, Katara was expertly, if a little brusquely, prodding the scar around Zuko's eye.
"What do you think?" asked Aang.
"The scar tissue is getting thicker," she answered. "It's pulling at the eyelid and keeping it from opening and closing properly." She looked at Zuko and asked, "Is it getting worse?" Zuko nodded.
"Can you heal it?" Aang continued innocently.
"I don't know," Katara hesitated. Zuko remembered that moment in the crystal cave underneath Ba Sing Se when she'd made the offer with some special water.
"Without the spirit water, I don't think I could do very much," she continued, dropping her hands and going back to Aang.
Toph apparently noticed Zuko's momentary confusion and filled him in quietly. "She used the spirit water on Aang after your sister tried to fry him."
"Oh." Zuko just slumped to the ground and put his head in his hands as another wave of guilt washed over him. Would he ever be able to truly repay all that he'd done to hurt these people? These people who were now his friends—or who at least were now tolerating his presence.
"Can't you just give it a try?" Aang asked Katara sweetly.
"No," Zuko interjected firmly. "It's okay. I've lived with this scar for years now. I might as well keep it." It makes a really great souvenir, he thought wryly. A gift from Dad.
But across the fire, Katara sighed and looked at Aang. "Sure, I'll try," she said with a smile. "It can't hurt and might help."
Katara got up from her spot by Aang and walked over to sit next to Zuko. She reached up to his face, then changed her mind. She gave a few quick orders to Sokka and Aang, who returned with armfuls of cushions and bed rolls. Katara settled down on the stone floor, making herself comfortable with some cushions. She then had him lie on his side with his head supported by a cushion on her lap. Thoughtfully, she'd even provided an unrolled sleeping bag for him to lie on. "This might take a while," she'd explained.
The others of the group faded back to give her room. Katara pulled water from her canteen, causing it to swirl in her hands like a glowing ball. She must have felt him tense up a little because she said, "Just close your eyes and relax. This won't hurt a bit."
Sure enough, the water felt cool and soothing on his skin, pulling at the heat and redness. "That feels good," he sighed, not even really aware that he'd said anything. Within seconds, he felt himself relax as completely as he ever did.
"How did you get this?" she asked absently as she worked, softening the skin and relaxing the upper layers of skin.
Zuko sighed. Now was as good a time as any to tell his story. The others leaned in to listen as Zuko poured out his tale of banishment and injury at the hands of his own father. He was surprised to find that the memory no longer filled him with rage, but instead sadness and regret.
Toph listened with her ears and her body and was filled with sympathy. No wonder he'd had such trouble figuring himself out. His family was more screwed up than they'd thought.
Zuko fell silent again and Katara worked, a solemn expression on her face. Then she looked concerned for a moment and spoke to Aang. "The problem with the tightness lies pretty deep. I've done some surface work that ought to help the redness, but I really need to work deeper down to help break up the scar tissue and keep that eye open."
"Go ahead," Zuko answered. "Work away."
"I'm afraid it might hurt pretty badly," she replied, looking down at him. "I've never intentionally hurt someone while healing."
"Oh, he can take it," Sokka chimed in, poking the fire with a long stick.
"Easy for you to say," Toph interjected. "You're not the one being worked over."
"It's up to Zuko," Aang made the final decree. He came over to Katara's side and looked down at Zuko. "What do you want to do?"
"Go for it. Like Sokka said, I can take it," he answered. Toph could tell that he was a little nervous despite the casual sound in his voice.
"Aang," Katara began, "I want you to help me."
"I don't know how to heal," replied Aang, backing off.
"Just follow my lead," she answered. Aang sat next to Katara and placed his hands over hers within the glowing globe of water.
Zuko settled himself, taking deep breaths as he could feel Katara begin to work. Within seconds the soothing feeling had become a tingle, then a stinging sensation as she began to break loose the scar fibers that crisscrossed his face. His discomfort level ran higher and higher. It began to feel like he had ants crawling underneath his skin, biting and stinging.
Discomfort soon turned to outright pain. It felt as though his skin was being ripped apart, layer by layer. Zuko could feel unbidden tears streaming down his face, invisible in the healing water. He fought to keep his breathing regular and any sign of distress off his face.
Just as he thought he'd succeeded in completely masking his response, he heard Toph's voice. "Katara, you're really hurting him. Stop!"
"No, don't," he managed to respond. "I'm fine." He couldn't, however, stop his voice from breaking a little.
"I need to finish what I've started here," Katara answered. Her voice seemed to be coming from far away.
He could feel someone take his hands and he gripped them tightly. "It's okay," said Toph. "We're here."
"You can do it, junior," Sokka's voice came from the other side, and he realized that Sokka was awkwardly patting his shoulder.
Voices of encouragement encircled him. "Just a little longer, Zuko. We're almost there," Aang added.
At long last, the pain began to cease, replaced with the previous sensations of cool healing. "What kind of aftercare did you get after this?" asked Katara angrily.
"Uncle Iroh put a dressing on it," Zuko mumbled, exhausted by the morning's efforts. He only listened with half an ear as Katara complained about the poor state of Fire Nation healing as he drifted off to sleep.
Hours later, Zuko awoke to find himself still stretched out on the sleeping bag, his head resting on a rolled up bedroll. He was afraid to open his eyes.
"You're awake," came Toph's voice. "Do you want some water?"
He nodded, eyes still closed. Slowly, he ventured to sit up and carefully opened his eyes. To his surprise, the pain of the healing was nearly gone. He only felt a little heat, like a slight sunburn. He blinked his eyes and felt a tremendous improvement in his left eye. It moved almost normally.
He took a sip of water from the cup Toph held out to him. "How did it go?" he asked. "Does it look any better?" Then he realized who he'd asked and embarrassment flushed his face.
"Don't be embarrassed," she answered with a laugh, sitting next to him. "In my own way I can see better than any of you. The scar looks a lot better. Still there, but a lot softer, and less red—or so they tell me. Colors I can't do."
He nodded again, then carefully sat up against the stone fountain. "Just what exactly do you see?" he asked. From the moment he'd known she was blind, he'd wondered how she managed to use earthbending to replace her sight. For the first time, he felt comfortable enough with the group to ask.
"I can see with my feet—or my hands or whatever is touching the earth. Vibrations travel through the ground and I can interpret them. It also comes in handy with knowing people's emotional state," she continued. "I can tell if someone's lying by their heartbeat and breathing."
"That's why Katara asked me to stay with you," Toph continued. "If you'd started to go all shocky or something, I'd be able to tell," she said casually. "But I think you'll be fine now."
"Where is everybody?" he asked. Judging from the sun, it was now past noon.
"Let me check," Toph answered and struck the ground lightly with her hand. "Aang is practicing firebending in the outer courtyard. Katara is in her room asleep—that took a lot out of her. Haru, Teo, and the Duke appear to be exploring—they're nearly out of range. And Sokka is—" she suddenly broke off and a blush colored her cheeks.
"What?" Zuko asked.
"He's taking a leak," she grumbled. "Too much information! I don't make a habit of spying on people."
"That's a pretty impressive talent," Zuko answered. "Could you use it to help find the Fire Lord?"
"I've never been close enough to him to get the feel of him," she answered. "I have to spend a little time with somebody to get to know their footsteps, their feel." She sighed as if she were bored with the conversation.
"Oh," he replied.
"But don't worry, fire boy," she answered with a big grin as she stood. "I'd know you anywhere."
Zuko watched the girl walk back toward the sleeping quarters with a smile. He might still have his scar, but here, with these kids who'd taken him in, he felt like something was finally beginning to heal.