The Western Air Temple had no railings, no balustrades, no parapets. Air Nomads just didn't think to include them. All the featureless expanses shockingly twisting into falls made Zuko queasy. The only thing that helped was to sit on the edge and dangle his feet off the side. The thought of nothing beneath his heels but air for miles and miles did put him at ease. This from a suggestion made by the Avatar… Aang.
It never sounded less weird, no matter how many times he told himself it eventually would.
'I could never do that," Toph said from a safe distance away.
Zuko hadn't noticed her approaching. He turned to find her slouching against a pillar, thought of how she 'saw' with her feet. "I suppose it would be like one of us blowing out a candle in a dark room."
"You sayin' I'm afraid of the dark?" she asked, crossing her arms.
Zuko slapped his face. The scarred part, so it hurt more. Why couldn't he be any good at talking to people!?
"Hey, chill out, your highness." Toph stomped the ground. Stone leg-and-head-rests burst out for Zuko. He was too wary to touch them. "I know you're too smart to make me mad."
Zuko grinned with as much warmth as he could muster. "Yeah. You might bury me alive in rock, listening through the earth while my heart slows and falls silent."
"Uhh… yeah… or I could put ant-turtles in your sleeping bag."
"Don't do that."
He got up, wheeling on her as slowly as possible in an attempt to quell his irrational rage. Why was he angry at her for wasting his time when his time was already going to waste? "Can I help you with something?" he asked with forced politeness. "Do you need to learn firebending? Is one of your family members in prison?"
"If my family were in Boiling Rock, the only thing I'd want your help with would be keeping them there." She padded around until she'd found a patch of dirt in the dilapidated tile floor. Toph flopped down on it with a looseness Zuko wished he could emulate. "Maybe I just interrupted your brooding time to have a chat."
"Chat?" Zuko muttered, not so much outraged as perplexed.
"Is that why you're so bad at it? You don't understand the concept?"
"I understand chatting!" he roared. Then he forced himself to calm down. "I just don't understand why anyone would want to talk… to me."
"Maybe if you shouted less…" Toph sat up and summoned a rock post up so she could sit face to face with Zuko. "You're telling me no one wants to talk to you?"
"What would they talk to me about? The best way to inflict pain? How I kept finding them like a hunter running its prey aground?"
"How'd you get that scar?"
Zuko started. "What scar?" he said dumbly.
"I heard Katara talking about it."
Zuko stomped over to the edge, where he sent a needle-thin lance of flame into the ether. "What'd she say?"
"What do you care?" Toph chimed back.
Zuko poured his frustration into the flame. It fanned out into dragon's breath. "I don't care! I just don't like it when people talk about me behind my back!"
Toph hopped down off her perch to approach him. "I didn't hear much. She stopped when I came in." Toph pouted and put on a shrewish voice. "She said 'I won't indulge in gossip'"
"That sounds like her, alright."
"I'll understand if you don't want to talk about it. Everyone else has things they won't talk about either."
Zuko cut off the flame. It lingered in the air as an arid scent, a crisp warmth that was slow to be replaced by cool air. "How can you trust me if I hide things? If I hide who I am. That's what this scar made me: the man I am today."
Toph pointed. "So you didn't just trip and scald yourself with hot tea."
He smiled wanly. "No. Trust me, hot tea burns go away in a few days. This will always stay with me."
"What… kind of scar is it?"
"It's the kind you get when your father wants to teach you a lesson you'll never, ever forget."
Toph hesitated. Maybe he'd finally succeeded at driving her off… just when he wanted her to stay.
Scalded himself with hot tea… heh.
"What kind of lesson?" Toph asked at last.
"That only the strong are fit to rule."
He told her everything. It took less time than he would've thought.
"Does it hurt?" she asked, aghast. Apparently he left her in the dust when it came to lousy parents.
"Only in my nightmares. And this is why I'm such a sought-after conversational partner. My sunny stories, dripping with optimism and good cheer."
"I've heard worse horror stories," she muttered.
"Yeah. From enemies of the Fire Nation." He threw his arms wide. "Dripping with optimist."
"No, I mean… you're not alone."
She grabbed his arm and squeezed it hard. "Not anymore."
When he didn't shy away from her callused touch, Toph raised a tentative hand to his face. She'd spindled her fingers across the strong line of his jaw when he grabbed her wrist. Toph started to stammer out an apology, but he wordlessly guided her hand to the scar that had burnt away any chance to follow in his father's footsteps, as slowly and insidiously as an assassin's poison. Her fingers pressed against it, feeling out the raised scar tissue of his burnt flesh in detail even he didn't possess. He'd told her it didn't hurt, but it did. Under the surface, it hurt like hell.
"It took a while for the guys to warm up to me, and for me to warm up to them. But it did happen. It will definitely take longer for you, but it'll still happen. And if anyone doesn't like it…" She buried a fist into an open palm.
He thought of a good joke to tell. "I think I've got a not-so-secret admirer."
"What can I say, I care more about voices than scars."
Zuko grabbed his throat. "What about my voice?"
"It's sexy." She gave him a strong slap on the flank. "Like a landslide."