the others celebrated another victory, Zuko looked on quietly. They
had accepted him into their group, sure, but he still didn't feel
like he belonged. Everyone, save for Katara, was nice to him, but he
still felt like an outcast. Silently, he got up and walked away. They
wouldn't notice if he left anyway.
He stopped when he reached the edge of the cliff, and sat down, staring down into the canyon until his golden eyes could see no lower and the bottom was black. He sighed and closed his eyes.
Since his banishment, a lot had changed. He'd lost his position as the prince and spent years searching for the Avatar, with only his uncle still beside him. He'd become a fugitive, and had to hide even from his own sister. He'd earned back his place as prince and been welcomed back to the Fire Nation after three years of 'being away'. And then he'd thrown it all away.
Even if his Uncle Iroh hated him, which he surely did after everything Zuko had done to him, Zuko hoped he would be proud that at least Zuko had finally chosen the right path. If that was the only thing he'd ever done right, he hoped his uncle could see at least that.
But the right thing was so hard… It wasn't that he was struggling with his urge to steal Aang up in his sleep and drag him to the Fire Nation for his father. It was that… no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make the others like him at all.
Oh sure, they laughed with him, smiled at him, talked to him, and hung around with him… but they were all much more comfortable when he wasn't around. He could see that easily. He was still the old Zuko, angrily stalking them around the world. He could never change that.
Everything had always come so easily to Azula. Zuko had never even really had friends as a kid, just his mother. Azula was always hanging around with someone, usually Ty Lee and Mai. Even if it wasn't those two, she always had someone. And he was always alone. He'd just never been good at making friends, and that was evident even now. He felt awkward just talking to the others, always afraid he'd say something stupid, like he always did, and they'd like him even less.
No one seemed to have noticed him leave.
Zuko let out another soft sigh and ran a hand through his shaggy black hair. What could he do? How could be possibly earn their trust? No, not their trust… for the most part, he had their trust. How could he earn their friendship?
He wasn't sure how long he'd spent puzzling over the answer when he noticed someone sit down next to him.
"Hey Sparky," Toph greeted, not looking at him, of course. "Why aren't you at the party?"
Zuko stared at her. Did she really come here just to talk to him? "Um… I never much liked parties," he answered.
Her lip pulled up just slightly at the corners. "Me neither."
"Is that why you're here?" He asked.
Zuko glanced away. "Oh." What was he supposed to say to that?
Toph itched the back of her neck and stared out across the abyss unseeingly. "So, Sparky, what's really bothering you?"
Zuko spun around to stare at her. "What? What do you mean?"
"Well," Toph frowned. "When you first showed up here, you wanted to join our group and teach Aang firebending. Now, you're a part of our group and Aang's learning firebending. But you're still unhappy."
Zuko swallowed, but didn't answer.
She sighed when he didn't answer, and continued. "So, I was wondering why you're still gloomy. You have what you wanted. What's bugging you now?"
frowned, and glanced away to hide his expression. Not that she could
see it. But she could probably feel his heart pounding angrily in his
chest. "I… I don't know."
Toph's eyes narrowed, and when she spoke, the bitterness was clear. "You're lying, Sparky."
"Okay, fine!" Zuko growled. "I don't like being called Sparky. That's what's bothering me."
"So, you don't like being called Sparky, but that's not what's bothering you?"
He glared at her, only aware in the corner of his mind that she couldn't see it.
"I'll take that as a yes," she said, smirking. "Now, Zuko, please tell me what's wrong? How can any of us help if we don't know?"
"None of you would want to help. None of you would care."
Toph frowned. "I care, Zuko. That's why I'm asking. Because I care."
Zuko's heart nearly stopped. She cared? How could anyone care about him? It was unnatural… no one had ever cared about him… Only his mother, and she'd left him…
Toph sighed. "Look, if you don't want to tell me, that's fine, okay? I'll go and let you mope in peace," she said, and started to get up.
Zuko glared out into the canyon as he continued to process what she'd said.
Toph had only gotten a few feet away before he hurried after her and grabbed her arm. "Wait," he said, softly.
Toph hesitated, then turned to face him. "Yeah?"
"I…" he frowned, his golden eyes narrowing. "I just feel like… no one really likes me."
Toph blinked, but didn't answer.
So he decided to elaborate. "I mean, when I asked to join your group, I wasn't asking for your friendship or anything, I just wanted to do my part in the war, finally… But I feel so isolated now. I… I know it's hard for you all, I mean, I was horrible to you… but… It's just hard to watch you all talking and laughing and… being friends with each other, but not with me."
Only after he finished all that, did he realize his hand was still on Toph's arm. He swallowed and pulled it away anxiously.
Toph and Zuko were silent for a long time, and Zuko started to feel very awkward, and sort of angry. He'd opened up, like he was always afraid to do, and she wasn't even going to say anything? She probably thought he was the biggest loser in the world. Totally antisocial and pathetic. He clenched his jaw, and thanked the lords that Toph could see the pink blush that had flowed onto his pale cheeks.
"Zuko…" Toph finally spoke up. "You never had any friends before, did you?"
Zuko felt his breath leave him, and his golden eyes shoot open before they narrowed into a scowl focused on Toph's foggy green-gray eyes. "No," he answered honestly. There was no point in lying to Toph anyway.
Toph smiled this time, a soft smile. "Neither have I."
Zuko frowned, and stared at her.
She sighed. "Before I joined the group, I lived with my parents in Goaling. They locked me away from the world because I'm blind… They didn't think I could take care of myself. Even when they found out I was an earthbender, they still saw me as a weak, fragile little girl. They hid me from the world, Zuko. They only people who knew I existed were my parents, my earthbending teacher, and the people at the Earth Rumble, but none of them knew who I really was. I've never had any friends, or any social life or anything, until I joined the group. And, Zuko, I didn't make friends with everyone right off the bat either. I had to work for their friendship. Aang and Sokka were the easiest, but Katara was always harder to get through to," she shrugged. "But I did it. We still fight, yeah, but I think we're friends. And Zuko, you can be their friend too, if you try."
He glanced away. "But I don't know how! It's different for me. I chased them around the world. I attacked them. I tried to capture Aang. Katara told me that when she pictured the bad guys, she pictured my face," he grimaced. "And then, when she finally trusted me, I betrayed her. I betrayed them all. They hate me. I'll never be able to be their friend…"
Toph gave an annoyed huff, and Zuko narrowed his eyes. "Look, Zuko, if you wanna live in the past and be all miserable, then be my guest. But, if you want a friend…" she reached forward and took his hand. "Then you can look my way. Even if the others will never be your friend, I will, okay?"
hand burned. Her touch was warmer than his fire, it seemed, and his
breath caught. She would be his friend? Again, it seemed unnatural
She sighed, and dropped his hand. It felt cold instantly. "Fine. Bye." She turned away.
"No, Toph, wait," Zuko said, reaching out and snatching her hand again. "Thanks, Toph. Really. It means a lot that—"
"Yeah, yeah, Sparky, don't get all emotional," Toph said, pulling her hand away with a smirk.
Zuko blinked, then smiled. That was the way Toph was, and he could accept it. She was his friend. He would accept it.
Come on, let's head back. The others are probably wondering where we are," she said, smiling.
"Okay," Zuko murmured. "Let's go."