"Stupid boy!" she snarled, limping carefully through the darkness and wincing with each step. "Stupid! Why did I even bother trying to talk to him?!"
Toph paused in her weary walk to sit down in the dirt and rest her feet. She put a hand on the sole of her left foot and hissed at the throbbing pain that followed. She knew, though she could not see them, that her feet were a blistering red color, and burned from the flame that a young Fire Nation prince attacked her with.
"Of course they were right," she muttered, eyebrows furrowed in anger. "Of course he's not really good! How could I think for a second that he might have changed?!" Taking a deep breath, Toph leaned backward against the tree she knew she was sitting beside. "But I didn't really give him any warning that I was coming to talk, not fight…"
A rustling in the dark brush beside her caught her attention. She whipped her head to the side and struggled to stand on her injured feet. "What do you want?!" With her feet throbbing in such pain, she couldn't sense the footsteps that could be coming toward her. For once, she was really blind.
"Please, stop running," a voice called out to her. Toph dropped the defensive stance she'd put herself in, but kept herself on guard. She knew the voice, but she didn't trust it.
Zuko, holding a small ball of fire in his hands for light, emerged beside her. "Toph-"
"Why are you following me?!" she demanded immediately. "I told you bug off!"
He sighed and began, "your feet-"
"Are fine!" she finished for him, scowling. "I'm fine! Don't overestimate yourself so much, prince boy, you didn't scorch them beyond repair."
Zuko sighed. "Look. I'm sorry. I didn't know it was you-"
"You could've waited long enough to find out!" she declared immediately.
"And risk having myself killed by someone my father might've sent after me?" he asked. "I couldn't help it. I've been raised to attack first and ask questions later."
"Humph," Toph muttered, slouching against the tree to take the weight off of her feet.
"Look," Zuko said, "Let me help you. I have salve for burns. No firebender goes without them."
Toph sat stubbornly on the ground. "I don't need your help."
Zuko tentatively knelt beside her, using his free hand to take a pouch out of his shirt. "I don't want to be a bad guy, Toph. I'm good."
"Yeah, whatever," she muttered, but she didn't ease away like her mind told her she should. "Good luck with that, after all you've done."
Zuko untied the pouch and reached inside, swiping his fingers against the buttery, slick salve. "I know, but... I want to try and change. I've been trying to keep my honor for my father, but I lost it in the process of making myself an obsessed fool."'
"Well, that's true," Toph conceded as he touched her foot. She jerked back, anxious. "If you hurt me again, I'll crush your brains out with the rock around us!"
"I won't, I promise!" he exclaimed, taking her foot and putting it in his lap. He rubbed the salve onto the burns, and watched her grimace. "Sorry."
"It hurts. Liar, you said you wouldn't hurt me," she accused. "You're just lucky that stuff feels kinda cold."
He frowned. "I didn't know if the salve would hurt or not. I've only used it on minor burns before, and it didn't really do that much."
Toph pondered his words. "You've never used it on the scar Katara says you have? The one on your face?"
"No," he replied after a moment. "I earned that scar because of my first foolish mistake. I deserve to have it. I didn't want it to heal."
"Shame," she replied. "You might have ended up cute."
He looked up at her, his hand pausing on her heel. "What?"
She laughed, waving a dismissive hand and turning her blind eyes in his direction. "It was a joke, Cinderella."
"Oh." He busied himself with putting her left foot carefully down and picking up her right, feeling somewhat awkward.
"You don't get to laugh very often, do you?" Toph mused, resting her head on the trunk of the tree and closing her eyes. "All the 'we must capture the Avatar!' and 'For the Fire Nation!' you do. Can't be that fun."
"It wasn't," Zuko conceded. "At first, I didn't think about having fun. I just thought about doing what I thought was required of me. My uncle, though... He always seemed to be laid back and relaxed, no matter what was going on."
"Maybe because he wasn't as focused and obsessed as you," Toph replied, shrugging. "Iroh was kinda cool. I met him once." She jerked when he touched her other foot. "Ouch!"
"Sorry!" he replied.
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. "It's fine. It's just weird, because my feet are like my eyes and they hurt, so I can't 'see' anything. Kind of frustrating."
Zuko studied her feet, staring at the burns with a guilty eye. "I'm really sorry I attacked you."
"I know," she replied. "I should've tried to give you some kind of warning. I would've attacked you too, if you'd come at me in the middle of the night."
He softly placed her foot down and let the fire in his hand go out long enough to close the pouch and tuck it away. "It'll take a while for the stuff to soak in, so you'll have to either wear something over your feet, or sit still for... a long time."
Toph groaned, wiggling her toes. "Great, just great. Well I'm not wearing anything on my feet. I'll just... sit." She thumped her head against the tree emphatically. "Peachy. I go to make peace with you, and I end up getting crippled."
"Hey-!" Zuko sighed. "I deserved that."
"Oh, quit with the pity-party-Zuko-bashing," she scoffed. "You need to learn to take a joke."
He nodded, forgetting for a moment that she was blind, and stood. "I'll be going now."
Frowning, Toph asked, "Why?"
"Uh, because you guys don't trust me, remember?" he replied. "You barely let me touch you without smashing my face in with a boulder or something."
"Good point." She crossed her arms and wrinkled her nose. "Look, the way I see it, you owe me right?"
He paused, uncertain. "Well, yeah..?"
She pointed to her feet. "I can't go anywhere, anytime soon."
"So I figure, you gotta stick around for a while." She grimaced. "As much as I really, really hate to admit it, if some of your Fire Nation buddies have managed to track us and they find me, it'd be tough for me to fight back. Not that I couldn't!" she assured him, as if he was giving her an incredulous look, "but I'm just saying."
"So..." Zuko leaned against the tree. "You're saying, you need me here?"
"No," she snapped, furrowing her eyebrows. "Just that you owe me a favor and my favor is that you sit here until I say you can go. Or can you not deal with that, huh, Cinderella?"
He rolled his eyes. "Fine, whatever. I'm going to make a fire."
"Fine," Toph said, closing her eyes. "But if you try to run off, I'm nicknaming you Chicken-Boy and I'll never call you anything else."
"Terrifying," he muttered, wandering through the trees nearby and picking up a few stray sticks. Within a few minutes, he used a shot of firebending to light the collected tender. Sitting away from Toph, Zuko drew one knee up to his chest and rested his chin on top of it, staring into the fire thoughtfully. Toph, feeling awkward in the silence, asked him, "Why did you follow me?"
He blinked, turning his gaze in her direction. "I wanted to help."
"Why?" she pressed.
He shrugged. "Because I hurt you? Sure, two weeks ago I'd have kept attacking you. But I told you, I've changed."
"Hmph." She drew her feet away from the heat of the fire. "You're so stupid. I could've totally crushed you if I'd felt like it."
"I'll bet," he mused, the right side of his mouth tugging upward.
"I heard that doubt!" she exclaimed. "You don't think I could've!" A small chuckle confirmed her suspicions. "Hey, I could take you down now, even with my feet roasted!"
"Sure," he mused. "We'll test that theory out once you can walk."
She insisted, "I can walk!" To prove her point, she began to rise. Upon putting her feet firmly on the ground, however, she slipped and fell down on her backside with a loud: "Oof!"
Zuko smirked and chuckled a bit louder. "Did I forget to mention that the salve is really slick?"
"Well, yeah, I think you might've forgotten that," she muttered, frowning.
Zuko shook his head and assured her, "Look, once you guys realize I'm not the enemy, and your feet heal up, maybe I'll fight you in an Agni Kai. Except you'll be using rocks instead of fire."
"An Agni -what?" she repeated, bemused.
"It's a duel used in the Fire Nation to settle matters of honor," he explained.
"Oh." Toph put her hands behind her head and shrugged. "Well, I don't want to fight you for honor. I just wanna whoop your butt." Rolling his eyes, Zuko laid back on the dusty earth.
Another drawn-out silence followed, discomforting the two teenagers as they sat together in the dark wood. Zuko, glancing at Toph on occasion, soon began mentally ridiculing himself for worrying so much over her burns. As soon as she healed, she'd probably throw a rock in his face and take off. Which he knew he probably deserved, no matter what she said about cutting out the "pity party."
Toph, on the other hand, was quickly trying to suppress her own curiosity about Zuko. Namely, his appearance. Thanks to Katara's biased description, she was under the impression that he was a deformed, ugly boy with a "silly, monk-like ponytail." His voice seemed to depict otherwise. It was very calm and smooth when he wasn't screaming about capturing Aang. In normal conversation, she decided, it sounded quite nice.
"Why are you blind?" Zuko asked suddenly, catching her off-guard.
"Sorry," he said, "Just curious."
Toph sighed, longing to be able to look him in the eyes as she told him, "I don't know. I've been this way since I was born."
"Oh," he replied, watching her reach down to tenderly examine her injured feet.
She shrugged. "I don't usually care that much, since I don't know any better. But it stinks sometimes. Like now. I wish I could see what you look like."
Zuko threw a few more sticks on the fire. "Why?"
"Well, Katara says you're an ugly baboon; I'd like to judge for myself," she replied, smirking slightly.
He chuckled softly. "I guess I should expect that from her."
"Yeah." She yawned. "Any other questions, Prince-boy?"
He thought about it for a minute and asked, "What do you dream of?"
"Do you always think this deeply?" she muttered, rolling her eyes. "Sounds. I only dream in sounds."
"No colors, even?" he asked curiously.
"Considering I've never seen colors, no," she replied, hugging her arms around her in the chilly air. Zuko noticed and sighed.
"You could move closer to the fire. It's not going to bite you," he said.
"The last bit did," she said sarcastically. At his silence, she shook her head and edged closer to the flame, and lay down. "If you don't stop taking me so seriously I'm going to hit you. I trust you." She narrowed her eyes. "Well, a little bit, anyway."
"Thanks," he said uncertainly. "Will you help me explain to the others that I want to help?"
She rolled over on her side, closing her eyes. "Maybe. Depends on whether you kill me overnight or not."
He nodded, then remembered and added aloud, "Fair enough."
She yawned again and said, "I'm going to sleep, Princess. Try to resist stabbing me."
"I'll try," he said, lounging back against a tree and crossing his arms over his chest. "Sleep well."
A few stray birds chirped around her. She was aware of the faint smell of smoke; a dying fire. Yawning, Toph sat up and opened her blind eyes, stretching. She spent a few sleepy moments identifying her surroundings and remembering what had occurred the previous night. Immediately she thought of Zuko and her feet, and she reached down to touch them. She winced; they still throbbed, but not nearly as much as the night before.
"Hey, Prince-boy," she called out to Zuko. No reply came, but she was aware of the faint breathing to her right. "Hmph. Asleep." She carefully stood to her feet, grimacing, and made her way over to the rogue firebender. For a moment she thought of waking him up, but instead she reached down and touched his face. "Let's see what you look like..."
She ran her hand carefully along his jaw and across his cheeks, her fingers barely more than a feather's touch. She carefully traced his eyelids, over his nose, and across his forehead. Finally she rested her hand on the scar that covered the right side of his temple. "He's not that bad. Katara's such a drama queen..."
Zuko's hand reached up to cover hers and he muttered incoherently. Toph stifled a gasp, freezing in surprise. However, as she waited, she noted his rhythmic breathing and realized he was still asleep. "You idiot," she mumbled, tugging her hand carefully away. Aware of the heat in her own face, Toph narrowed her eyes. "I'd hit you if you were awake."
Carefully stepping away, Toph realized that she had some feeling back in her feet. Relieved, she retreated carefully away from their temporary camp, only pausing once to look blindly back at Zuko. "Thanks, Princess." After wandering several moments, Toph found familiar ground and headed back to the western air temple.
"Toph, your feet!" Katara exclaimed upon the earthbender's return. "What happened?"
Toph groaned when Katara touched her feet. "Don't, they're tender! They got burned."
"How?" Katara pressed, pulling water from her bag with her bending and placing the water on her feet.
"I... kind of went to see Zuko last night," she exclaimed.
"You what?" Aang demanded as Sokka helped Toph carefully to her feet and carried her to a fountain.
She explained, "I thought he could be helpful to us with Aang's firebending. I wanted to see if he really was good."
"Well your feet are clearly an answer to that question!" Katara exclaimed. "I can't believe you went to talk to him, Toph."
Toph sighed, placing her feet into the fountain's cool waters. She turned her head in Katara's direction and said, "Because I thought he really might be good; I thought maybe he deserved a chance. But listen, you guys-"
"He's a firebender," Sokka said, frowning. "They're never good people! I mean, look at you. He attacked you!"
"Listen to me, stupid!" Toph exclaimed impatiently. "After he burned my feet-"
"Duck!" Aang exclaimed suddenly as he pointed at a shot of fire heading toward the temple. They covered their heads as the fire crashed into the side of the temple and the ceiling above them shook, sending rubble crashing down around them.
"What was that?!" Toph demanded, pulling her feet out of the fountain and standing.
"Stop!" cried a familiar voice. Aang turned to see Zuko facing the tall, muscular Combustion Man. "I don't want you hunting down the avatar anymore!"
"Zuko!" Toph cried. "Aang, help him!"
"The mission is off!" Zuko continued. "I order you to stop!" Combusion Man knocked him roughly aside, ignoring his protests. He shot another bullet of fire at the temple, almost throwing the others off their feet.
"What is he doing?" Katara cried, ducking behind the fountain's wall.
"Clearly, he's trying to help!" Toph snapped. "And you guys are sitting here like old grannies, doing nothing!"
"What if this is all a show?" Sokka demanded. "We could be playing into his hands!"
"I'll pay you double to stop!" they heard Zuko cry. Aang peered over the fountain's edge and watched Combustion Man knock him down and turn his focus on the teenage firebender, glaring. He shot fire at Zuko, who barely had time to block the attack. He was set skidding backwards and was knocked off the edge of the cliff, barely hanging onto a stray vine.
"Does that sound like someone who's setting up a trap!?" Toph asked. "Aang, please!"
After a second's consideration Aang stood up and took off, attacking Combustion Man with his airbending. Katara, too, harnessed her waterbending and unleashed attacks on the man. Sokka grabbed Toph's arm and pulled her behind a wall, gesturing for the others to follow while Combustion Man tried ward off their attacks.
"Guys, he's going to blast this place off the cliffside!" Toph said as their enemy attacked the temple with more firebending.
"Well we can't step out to attack him without getting blown up!" Katara exclaimed.
Sokka, struck with an idea, pushed his sister aside. "Let me do this! I can get him!"
"Well hurry up!" Toph cried desperately. "Aang, where's Zuko?"
"The last time I saw him he was hanging off the edge of the cliff," Aang replied.
Toph began to sweat slightly. "What?"
Aang stared at her. "Why are you so concerned?"
"I just am!" she replied. Suddenly Sokka cried, "Yes!" and ran out from behind the wall.
"My boomerang worked!" he cried out triumphantly, catching it as it returned to him. "I rock!" He peered up at the cliff, only to notice Combustion Man standing back up. "Aw! No!"
The man reared back, charging up for another attack. However, suddenly, the source of his firebending began to short-circuit, and as light erupted from his forehead, he suddenly imploded. The cliff face erupted into flamed and explosions.
"Wow, Sokka!" Katara cried. "Your boomerang came through after all!"
"What happened?" Toph asked.
"Combusion Man...combusted!" Sokka explained, grinning. "He blew up the whole mountainside over there!"
"Do you see-"
Aang put a hand on her shoulder. "Yes. He's fine. I see him climbing up."
Toph relaxed. "Good."
Zuko tentatively walked toward the avatar and his friends, uncertain of what lie ahead. He noticed Toph facing him, seeming to stare at him through her blind eyes. She nodded, and he noted the small smile on her face. Feeling somewhat relieved, he stopped a few feet from Aang.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but...thanks," Aang said.
Zuko nodded. "Listen, I didn't explain myself really well yesterday. I've been through a lot, and it's hard. But I think I needed that, in order to understand the truth. All I want now is to play my part in ending this war." He nodded to Toph. "I would have told her that last night, but I attacked her thoughtlessly. I didn't know who she was, and it was dark, and I'm sorry."
Toph stretched, walking toward him and standing beside him. "Yadda, yadda. We get it, you're sorry. Look, Aang, just let him join us. I've been trying to tell you since I got back that he burned me on accident, and followed me half the night just to try and help me. Besides." She subtly nudged his arm. "It'll give me time to get back at him for burning me."
As Aang considered this with Katara and Sokka, Zuko looked beside him at Toph. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it," she replied, shrugging. "I know you're not that bad. After hearing you be all sappy and kind last night, you clearly aren't as buff as you've acted."
He chuckled quietly. "How are you feet?"
"Good," she said. "I'll need that salve again later, though."
"Of course," he said.
Aang walked toward him, and nodded. "Okay. You can come with us, as long as you agree to teach me firebending. I need it, and I think you're destined to be my teacher."
Zuko leaned forward in a bow. "I'd be honored."
Toph grinned, hooking her arm through Zuko's. "Awesome." He looked down at her, heat rising into his cheeks.
As Aang and Katara headed into the temple, Sokka raised an eyebrow at Toph. "Aren't you friendly."
She withdrew her arm, coughing. "Twinkle-toes."
"Hey!" Sokka exclaimed, embarrassed at the nickname. He retreated toward the temple. "Kick his butt if he tries anything funny!"
She saluted sarcastically, and sat down on the fountain's edge. "I'm glad you're with us, Prince-boy."
"Yeah," he said, sitting beside her. "Need all the help we can get to end this war..."
"No," she said. "I meant, I'm glad you're here. Just...'cause." Toph wiggled her toes. "Can I have some of that salve?"
"Can you say 'please'?" he asked, smiling slightly.
"Seriously? You're asking me to be polite?" She rolled her eyes.
Zuko carefully picked up her feet and put them into his lap. "Good point."
Aang and Sokka sneakily spied on Zuko and Toph, amazed. "Clearly," Sokka whispered, "Something besides a fight happened last night."
"This is so confusing," Aang said.
Sokka shook his head. "Can't believe Toph's gone all lovey-dovey-eyed over the enemy."
"Should we say something?" Aang asked.
Sokka thought about it and replied, "Nah. We'll wait until we catch them kissing. Then we torment them shamelessly." Aang nodded, grinning, and they left the blind earthbender and the rogue firebender pleasantly to themselves.