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Healing Properties of Cinder Sage

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Zuko woke up coughing.

He rolled upright and hacked into his elbow, trying to cough up the wad of phlegm stuck in his throat. The force bent him almost double again. Bright starbursts of light appeared behind his eyelids from the pressure; tight lines of pain stretched over his temples and down his neck from the tension. Zuko tried desperately to suck in some air between the spasms, but it still wasn’t long before his thoughts constricted to the sharp band of pain in his ribs. Finally, though, he choked up the phlegm and spat it into his sleeve, and drew in a great, shuddering gasp of a breath.

It sounded alarmingly wet when it hit his lungs. Great. He hadn’t had coral fever since he was twelve.

Zuko drew in another gurgling, wet breath and slowly straightened. The muscles in his sides and ribs twinged from the unexpected workout, but he didn’t start coughing again, so he considered it a success.

He made a face at the sight of his soiled sleeve. Ew.

Blearily, Zuko took off the phlegmy shirt and tugged a clean one on in its place. Then, taking the gross shirt along as a handkerchief, he left the barren room he’d been given and started his way down (up?) to where the Avatar and his friends slept. Someone had to know where they kept the medical supplies.

He made it halfway down the corridor before he started coughing again, braced against the wall. For the first time, Zuko was genuinely grateful he’d been given a room so far away from the others – the weird thing about coral fever was that the cough settled down during light exercise, so by the time he got to the courtyard where the others slept, he probably wouldn’t wake them all up coughing.

As Zuko stumbled down the steps, gingerly rubbing his chest with one hand, he considered his options. The waterbender was absolutely out – he was pretty sure she wouldn’t give him a drink if she found him dying in the Si Wong Desert. So was her brother, although for a different reason: Zuko thought he might help him, especially since a single breath was all it took to hear how sick Zuko was, but the boy was impossible to get up in any reasonable amount of time. Zuko supposed he could wake up the Avatar – Aang, his name is Aang – but that should probably be a last resort; the kid was training hard enough every day that Zuko didn’t want to wake him up in the middle of the night. Plus, he’d probably panic, and Zuko was too sick to deal with that. (Not really. He just didn’t want to. All he needed was some medicine, and he’d be fine in a few days, just like always.)

So that left the earthbender. Toph. The girl he’d burnt. Sure, that would go well. Then again… when it came to him, she had that air of milking a situation for all she could that was startlingly reminiscent of Ty Lee around a cute boy – although that was where the girls’ similarities ended – and sometimes she stood up for him against the waterbender.

By the time Zuko was stumbling into the main living courtyard, his cough had settled down. Part of that was the coral fever weirdness, but part of it was also that he’d re-learned how to breathe shallowly, how to avoid drawing air deep enough into his lungs to trigger a cough – it was so counterintuitive after nearly three years of solid training in firebending that needed deep, sustained breaths, but after a few minutes the muscle memory from childhood came back to life. He kept one hand on the wall for support – the fever was starting to kick in now, he could feel it prickling over his skin, making the cloth rustling over his body vaguely uncomfortable – and tried to make his eyes focus in the moonless dark. Where was…?

There.

Zuko followed the wall to where Toph was sprawled on top of her bedroll. He didn’t have the energy or the coordination to walk in his usual light, silent manner, which was probably a good thing – the girl saw by vibrations, so the vibrations of his walk would probably give her some warning. The opposite of what happened when he burnt her, he hoped. In the same vein of thought, he was still a bit away when he rasped, “Toph?”

She rolled over with a sigh, but otherwise didn’t respond. Zuko came closer and tried again: “Toph.”

This time she sat up with a groan. “Ugh,” she muttered, and slapped her feet onto the rock of the courtyard, one after the other. “Sparky? What time is it?”

Zuko gave a half-shrug before he could stop himself. “Late,” he offered, and was about to say more when she cut him off, tense with shock.

“Sweet loam, is that your breath? How are you standing?”

“Practice,” Zuko muttered, flushing. “Uh, where do you guys keep the medical supplies?”

Toph seemed to shake herself out of her shock. “With the luggage and stuff,” she said. “Here, let me show you – are you sure you should be walking around? You sound terrible.”

“S’just coral fever, I’m fine.”

She pursed her lips but grabbed Zuko’s free wrist anyway. “Never heard of it,” she said blithely. “I’ll take your word for it. At least your pulse seems okay, even if you sound half-drowned.”

Zuko could feel a cough starting to build in his chest, but braced himself against the sharp stabs of pain and determinedly kept it down until they were halfway down the corridor, a good distance from the sleeping others. Then he let it come, tugging Toph to a stop and bracing one shoulder against the wall. By the time he hacked up another clot of phlegm into the (really disgusting) old shirt, he had slid down the wall to a sitting position. His temples throbbed and everything between his collarbone and the top of his hips ached.

Toph stood where she’d stopped, her brow furrowed but otherwise not showing any concern or attempts to help. Zuko found himself absurdly grateful.

“Well,” she said when he had finished. “That didn’t help the half-drowned thing.”

Zuko gave a shallow laugh. The fever pulsing under his skin made his shirt’s presence more uncomfortable than ever, and he debated taking it off. It wasn’t like Toph would care or possibly even know the difference. “Trust me, I feel half-drowned. And I’ve almost drowned a couple times before, I know what I’m talking about.”

He would chill far too easily without a shirt, especially at night, without the sun. The shirt stayed on.

Toph snorted. Then she rolled her lips together, and hesitantly said, “Can you keep going? Or should I just bring the medical supplies here?”

Zuko pressed his cheek against the cool stone wall, eyes closed, and took stock. “Gimme a minute,” he rasped. “I can keep going.”

“Whatever you say, champ.”

After a couple of minutes, Zuko hauled himself to his feet again with a quiet, low groan. The fever was starting to seep into his joints, making them ache, and his knees didn’t appreciate being moved. “Okay, let’s go.”

Toph frowned, but took hold of his wrist again and tugged him along. The first time Zuko staggered over the uneven stones, she silently moved his hand to her shoulder and let him lean on her. He accepted the help, equally silent.

The corridor opened out into another open courtyard, a little more sheltered from the weather, where Appa’s saddle was kept along with the bags and the little-used-but-important bits of supplies. Toph left Zuko by the doorway and made a beeline for one bag in particular, hefting it up under one arm and bringing it back. “Here,” she announced. “This is all we’ve got, as far as I know.”

“This is it?” Zuko repeated in surprise, sliding down to a sitting position again and gingerly poking through. It seemed so… small, mostly bandages and wound ointments, a little comfrey for making casts, a little scar moisturizer for Aang’s lightning scar. “There’s not much.”

Toph sat down beside him and shrugged. “Honestly, we don’t need much. Usually Sugar Queen can heal anything before someone else can even find the med pack.”

Zuko hummed in acknowledgement, rooting through the pack a second time. There was no cinder sage. He felt like crying, which was mostly the fever, and pushed it back. “…Can she heal illnesses?”

“Not as easily. And, uh, no offense – “

“She probably won’t agree to heal me,” Zuko finished.

“Yeah. Are we missing something?”

Zuko was silent for a little bit, staring blindly at the med pack. Finally he dredged his voice back up and murmured, “It looks like you don’t have much in the way of treating illnesses at all. But… I used to get coral fever all the time as a kid, and I was always treated with cinder sage. Which you also don’t have, but it should be easy to find in a market…”

Toph scoffed. “Yeah, sure. I’ll just pop over three streets over to the market. And we can totally find Fire Nation herbs here in the Earth Kingdom.”

They were good points, and Zuko tried to think through the fog in his brain and the new cough tickling his chest. “Fifteen miles east-southeast,” he murmured.

“What?”

“That’s the nearest town with a market. We restocked there once, a couple years ago. They had tons of cinder sage then, I think it grows wild – “ Zuko broke off, coughing again.

This time Toph whacked him on the back a couple times, until he stopped, his head resting against his knees. It kind of galled him that it did help. “Okay. Fifteen miles isn’t that far, at least for me.” She jabbed him with her elbow. “What exactly am I looking for, here?”

Zuko squinted at her in confusion. “Huh?”

“This cinder sage. I’ve never heard of that either. What is it? How do I recognize it?”

“You’re… going for it? Now?”

“You sound really bad, Sparky. Of course I’m going now. Well, not right now, I still don’t know what I’m looking for.” She paused meaningfully, waggling her eyebrows in his general direction.

Zuko blinked at her. “…Okay. Um. It, uh. It smells mostly like sage, but there’s also woodsmoke and, uh, I guess a bit of nutmeg? Most of it is sold as a really fine powder, that’s called, um, rubbed cinder sage. But crumbled leaf is better for medicine, it’ll feel pretty, um, pretty brittle and crumble easily, but it should still be in mostly big pieces, at least as big as, um… an Earth tin coin? I guess?” Zuko closed his eyes, thinking. “Most of the cinder sage is sold as leaf,” he murmured, “but the root is the best if you can find it. I don’t know if you can, though, I don’t remember if they sold the root last time I was there. The, uh, smoke smell is stronger, so is the nutmeg smell, um. Usually it’s in fluffy fibers. You know, like the old man’s beard lichen? Have you felt that stuff? It’s in long, thick fibers like that, but softer. You’ll want the longest stuff you can find, preferably, um, half a foot? That’s from older, more potent roots. Uh… yeah. Yeah, I think that’s it.”

There was a short pause, before Toph murmured, “I’m impressed, Sparky.”

“Hmm?”

“You didn’t describe it with sight at all.”

“Um, it wouldn’t do you any good. Would it?”

“No, but that hasn’t ever stopped anyone from doing it.”

“Oh.” Zuko paused. “There is one thing…”

“Yeah?”

“You can find it pretty easy by all that,” Zuko said, “but if there’s more than one bag of the root, uh, grab a random person off the street and ask the color. The yellow kind is more potent, but more expensive…”

“So don’t trust the merchant. Gotcha. This isn’t my first rumble, you know.”

“I know,” Zuko murmured. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, pressing hard against the throb of his headache. The mental fog of the fever pressed down on him, lulling him into a half-doze. “They probably won’t have that choice anyway… The leaves are mostly one color, it’s just the roots that are like that, so it’s a moot point entirely if they don’t sell the root at all.”

Toph nodded firmly. “Right. Try not to die while I’m gone, okay?”

“Whatever,” Zuko mumbled, half asleep already. He vaguely felt her pat his shoulder roughly a couple times, and heard her walking away, but sleep was pulling him down further.

The coughs came back with a vengeance since he wasn’t moving, and he could feel his temperature creep upwards slowly but surely with the fever. By the time Toph came back, near dawn, he’d fallen asleep and jerked awake coughing five times.

Zuko was awake when she came back, but still jerked in surprise when Toph just knocked down a wall to step through. She sent it all back in place with a single well-placed stomp and threw herself down next to him again. “Have you slept at all, Sparky?”

Zuko blinked blearily and tried to peer into the small sack Toph carried under one arm. His cheek slid off the warm bit of stone he’d been leaning against and onto a fresh, still-cool bit, and he left it there. It felt nice. “Off and on.”

Toph screwed her face up. “You sound even worse.”

“Yeah. It’s getting worse.”

Toph humphed. “It’s a good thing you woke me up, then. What do we do with this stuff?”

“Tea.”

She nodded firmly and plopped the sack in Zuko’s lap. “I’ll go get some water, then. Can you heat it up yourself?”

Zuko untied the sack and nodded vaguely. Then he remembered and said, “Yeah.”

Toph stomped off, and Zuko bent his head over the sack opening. He smiled – somehow, Toph really had been able to find the long root fibers, and they were almost eye-searingly yellow-orange. Yeah, these would be wonderful. Zuko bent his head over the opening and drew in as deep a breath as he dared; the familiar, comforting scent of smoke and nutmeg and sage combined in his nose and he found himself relaxing against the wall. Yeah. This stuff would help.

Toph came back from the direction of the fountain, teacup dangling from one finger and an old Air Nomad bucket filled with water in the other hand. She set the bucket down by Zuko’s feet and thrust the teacup in his general direction.

Zuko took it, filled it from the bucket, and cradled it in the palm of his hand, bringing his fire up to just under his skin to heat the water, breathing deliberately. His inner fire itched a bit, mostly at his wrist, exacerbating the effects of the fever where the extra heat pooled. He put a healthy pinch of cinder sage in the water and waited for it to start steaming.

The steam was just starting to wisp off the surface when his breath caught in his chest and he started coughing.

“Whoa!” Toph cried in surprise, rescuing the cup from Zuko’s hand after the first jerk. Zuko curled around himself, still coughing, his muscles spasming with fresh pain which only made him cough more. When it stopped and Zuko could breathe again, Toph gently pressed the cup back into his hand. “Is firebending out, then?”

Zuko cleared his throat before he tried to speak and almost triggered another coughing fit. “Sustained firebending is. Ugh. I guess… we should build a fire pit and I can start it once?” He stared down at the sodden yellow fibers floating on top of the water. “And I guess I’d better figure out something for Aang to practice…”

“You can take a sick day, you know,” Toph said, standing up and grabbing the bucket again. “Come on, we can’t build a fire here.”

Zuko blinked up at her for a second and then hauled himself to his feet. Toph snatched the cup from him again when he almost unbalanced, but didn’t say anything. It took another couple seconds for a reply to come: “I can, but Aang can’t. The… the comet’s too close.”

Toph shrugged, situating herself so Zuko could lean on her shoulder again, walking just the right distance so he could also prop himself up on the wall. “Have him run drills, then. I can yell at him for you!”

Zuko almost snorted before his ribs twinged to remind him what a bad idea it was. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you,” he mumbled.

Toph snickered. “You bet.”

She helped Zuko ease to the floor by the secondary fire pit, far enough away from the sleeping courtyard that wayward banging pots wouldn’t wake anyone up. Zuko carefully drew himself into a sloppy cross-legged position, moving slow and deliberate against the fever’s aches, and watched as Toph made a half-decent attempt at stacking wood. “No,” he mumbled. “No, not like that.”

Toph froze, one hand still on the last log. “Like what, then, Sifu Hotman?”

“They’ll… collapse and smother the fire,” Zuko mumbled. “Pull them a little bit more apart… little more… and some tinder in the middle. Yeah. Step back, I’ll punch it up.” Fitting actions to words, he breathed a couple of times and then gave a half-hearted firebending punch. The blossom of flame was small and weak – he hadn’t been able to put much power behind it – but it was enough to catch the tinder and then the kindling. Toph hoisted the bucket into place to start heating and Zuko gingerly set the teacup on the edge of the fire pit.

The first cup of tea was almost heavenly. Zuko didn’t start drinking right away, but leaned forward and inhaled the steam as deep as he dared. The fumes settled down into the nooks and crevices of his lungs, making them expand and loosening the fluid. He inhaled again and immediately put the cup down – then he started coughing again, but this time it was easier to hack up the fluid and phlegm and it didn’t last as long. The miracles of cinder sage.

Zuko inhaled the steam one more time before he sipped. The flavor was every bit as disgusting as he remembered, not nearly as pleasant as the scent and tainted with the awful taste of phlegm that coated his mouth, but he swallowed it down anyway. Then he alternated – another breath, another sip, another breath – until the cup was empty. He started a little pile of spent cinder sage and refilled the cup from the hot water and the sack of fresh cinder sage. Rinse and repeat.

“Hey,” Zuko finally murmured. Inhale. Sip. Acknowledge his hurts and then dismiss them so he could think.

“Hmm?”

“Where’s the cooking pot? We can start some congee since we have a fire going already anyway.”

Toph scoffed. “What’s this ‘we’ business? You think I’m letting you and your gross snot and your sick germs near our food?”

Zuko sipped. “I,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster, “have never seen you cook breakfast. And I’ve been up early enough to know.”

“Oh, sure, and Prince Fancy Warship knows how to cook?”

“Not much, but I can handle boiling rice for a long time.” Inhale. Sip. Refuse to gag. Inhale. Cough. Acknowledge and dismiss. Sip. Inhale.

“Why should I start it?”

“I need something on my side when Katara wakes up and finds out I can’t train Aang.” Sip. Cough. Inhale. Acknowledge and dismiss. Sip.

“You’ve got me!” Toph offered brightly.

“Yes, but is that enough,” Zuko said, as a statement rather than a question.

“Uggghhhhh.” Toph got up, grabbed the cooking pot as aggressively as she possibly could, and marched off to the fountain.

Zuko smiled a bit. Sip. Refuse to gag. Cough. Inhale. Sip…

The bottom of the sun was just cresting the hills when Toph came back, settling the pot over the fire. “Right, Ricebender,” she muttered, “how much rice for everyone?”

“Mmm.” Zuko thought for a minute, inhaling steam. “Eight people… mostly teenage boys… five double-handfuls, probably.” He cracked his eyes open and watched Toph scoop rice straight from the sack. “Oh. Yeah. Your hands are tiny. Maybe more like eight. And then something like five or six heavy pinches of salt.”

Toph gave a mock-offended gasp. “Who are you calling tiny, Sparky?”

Zuko watched her scoop the sixth double-handful. “The second most dangerous person in the temple, obviously.”

Toph’s lips pulled down a little. “Second most dangerous? I’m the greatest earthbender in the world!”

“And I’ve seen Aang in the Avatar state.”

Toph blinked and deflated a little. Then she swelled again with righteous indignation. “The Avatar state doesn’t count.”

“Yes it does.”

“No it doesn’t!”

Zuko knocked back the dregs of his third cup. “Yes it does!”

“No it doesn’t! He doesn’t go into it at every fight, while I’m always the best earthbender in the world. Even when I’m asleep.”

“Mmm.”

“And he’s got access to all the memories of his past lives then, too, so it’s not even like it’s one person. Unlike me.”

“Fine,” Zuko snapped. “You’re the most dangerous except for the times when Aang gets angry enough to become a multitude. Is that better?”

“You’re still counting the Avatar state!”

“Yeah, because it’s terrifying!”

Zuko’s mouth snapped shut. Did he really just say that? Yes. He did. As evidenced by Toph’s startled laughter. A thousand curses on that fever fog. “Oh, wow, Sparky,” she gasped, one hand clasped to her chest dramatically. “I didn’t know you were scared.”

“Have you ever witnessed it?”

Toph sobered abruptly, and Zuko peered up at her in concern. “Yeah,” she said. “A couple times. You’re right, the only thing I can do is get out of the way.”

Zuko sighed. And started coughing, his overused muscles seizing up at the sudden expansion. When his chest settled again, he just sat quietly in the early morning chill, sipping his tea and watching the pot of congee come to a boil. The first bubbles were starting to pop on the surface when he murmured, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so helpful, Toph.”

“What, you think I can’t be helpful?”

“Not without a lot of groaning and complaining and insults.”

“Oh. Well, good point.” She paused. “Look, I know you say you’re fine and you just need your weird Fire Nation fiery tea, and I know how maddening it is for people to treat you like you’re helpless even though you’re not, but…”

“I know I sound awful,” Zuko said, a tiny curl of amusement in his mouth even as his breath rattled in his fluid-filled lungs.

“Yeah. Exactly. I kind of don’t want you to die, I guess.”

“Who’s dying?”

Zuko startled, sloshing hot tea over the rim of his cup and all over his hand. Toph cackled. “Morning, Twinkletoes! Sparky is.”

Zuko got a face full of Aang’s big worried eyes. He twitched. “When did you get up,” he rasped.

Aang frowned. “Wow, you really don’t sound all that great.”

“I told you, he’s dying,” Toph pitched in.

Zuko rolled his eyes. “I’m not dying, it’s just coral fever.”

“Oh, my friend Kuzon had that once! His mom wouldn’t let me see him, though. He was in bed for a week, even though Monk Gyatso sent me with medicine for him. Are you gonna be sick that long?”

Zuko shrugged, slow and ginger. “Depends. Shortest time I’ve ever had coral fever was three days, longest was a week and a half.”

“Oh.” Aang opened his mouth, then closed it, fiddled with his staff, scuffed the floor with his foot, and in general looked pretty uncomfortable. Zuko braced himself for whatever Aang wanted to ask.

“Out with it, Twinkletoes, your vibrations are making me jittery,” Toph barked.

Aang took in a ridiculously deep breath. “Whatdoesthismeanforfirebendingpractice?”

Zuko blinked at him uncomprehendingly. “Slower,” he requested. Aang blushed bright red and squirmed.

“He said,” Toph sighed, “what does this mean for firebending practice. Which I assume you’ve been trying to think about since the last time we talked about it.”

“Oh. Um, yes, I have, actually.” He turned back to Aang. “I’ll probably be able to watch and correct you, but obviously I won’t be doing anything with you. But you know enough forms that you can do them by yourself. Also some basic exercises. So… yeah, you’re not off the hook.”

Aang collapsed next to Zuko, on the opposite side as Toph was on. “Darn,” he sighed.

“Mmm.” Zuko inhaled the steam from a fresh cup. “You need all the firebending practice you can get, though.”

“I know.”

Zuko sat there for another minute, slowly sipping on his tea. Then he removed the spent cinder sage, refilled his cup, and added the pinch of fresh cinder sage. “Come on,” he murmured, nudging Aang in the shoulder. “Let’s go start.”

It was easier to stand up and walk than it had been earlier in the morning, between the cinder sage and the real warmth of the sun and the fire, but Zuko still used the wall for support. Aang had bounded ahead with his usual endless energy, but when he noticed Zuko was lagging behind, he bounded back. “Are you okay, Zuko? Do you need help?”

Zuko waved him off irritably. “I’ll be fine,” he snapped. “Just a little slow. Now you know why I won’t be doing the forms with you.”

Aang shrugged, but he didn’t look away from Zuko’s face, like he could stare into the future and see Zuko about to collapse if he just watched hard enough. “If you say so.”

The small pagoda where they usually practiced firebending was a couple of steps down from the rest of the main living space. Zuko sent Aang down to the pagoda itself to start the standard warm-up routine, and took a seat on the top step, leaning one shoulder on a pillar and stretching his legs out, angling for the most sun exposure. Towards the end of the warm-up, Toph reappeared with an armful of short, sturdy sticks, the sack of cinder sage, and a weird metal pot. The pot was mostly pot-shaped, but at the bottom there were four vertical bars that connected the basin to some kind of flooring. The joins were wrinkled and buckled, ugly and inexpert, but they looked like someone had simply squished the two pieces of metal together like a toddler would squish together clay – clearly another of Toph’s forays into metalbending, which Zuko knew was at least as strong as a standard weld. “I brought you a refill.”

Zuko blinked as Toph plopped down next to him, putting the weird pot on the next step down. It was, indeed, full of steaming water. “Thanks. What, uh. What is that thing?”

“It’s something Sokka was rambling about a couple days ago, I thought I’d make one and try it out for him. See, you put some wood in here – “ she stuck four or five sticks into the cage at the bottom – “and use the metal cage to contain a baby fire. So you can have a pot right over a fire without needing a fire pit.”

“I assume that’s my cue to light the fire.”

Toph nodded, grinning, just as Aang yelled, “Okay, I’m done with the warm-up! What do I do first?”

“Flying Spark, three times!” Zuko called back, which triggered another cough. Then he lit the little fire for Toph and said, a little softer, “I thought you were watching the congee?”

“Eh,” Toph shrugged. “Sweetness woke up. I think she can handle it. Hey, what else goes in congee besides rice and salt?”

Zuko glanced at her askance from the corner of his good eye. “Uh… what do you mean? We’ve only been having it every morning for as long as I’ve been here. I’m sure you guys were having it every morning for even longer.” Then he turned back to watching Aang.

Toph screwed her face up. “You call that congee? It’s just jook.”

Zuko shrugged. “It was just peasant food until I left on my ship,” he offered with a wry smile. Toph snorted with laughter.

They sat together, comparing names for other common dishes, as Aang worked through the Flying Spark and the Stealthy Dragon, and started the Burning Forest. Zuko tried to pay closer attention to Aang here; he wasn’t as confident at the Burning Forest than the other two. And sure enough, barely a third of the way through the form, Zuko called out a correction: “Get your – “

And then he dissolved into a coughing fit.

“Can’t raise your voice still?” Toph asked when she could be heard over Zuko’s coughs. Zuko nodded, his pulse still thundering in his ears.

“Hey, were you trying to correct me?” Aang asked, jogging closer. Zuko nodded again, stubbornly holding his breath against a new wave of coughing until the spasms in his chest subsided.

Toph grinned. “I told you I can yell at Twinkletoes for you!” she offered brightly, smacking her fist into her palm. “Just tell me what to say and I’ll do it!”

Zuko side-eyed her. “You sound way too happy to yell for me,” he rasped. His voice scraped roughly over his raw throat. Then, speaking to Aang since the kid was close enough to hear, “Your punches were too low, your flames were diverted to the floor instead of any possible opponent. Raise them up, pretend you’re aiming for Toph’s thighs. Also put more raw muscle power into them, you looked a little loose. Go start from the beginning.”

Aang nodded and returned to the middle of the pagoda. Zuko eyed his half-full teacup and slammed it all down in one gulp.

“Seriously,” Toph said, “next time you need to yell at him, let me know. I’d be more than happy to.”

Zuko snorted. And then he took her up on it: “…Yeah, okay, remind him to raise his punches.”

Toph snickered. “Isn’t this the same part you started on him last time?”

“Yeah.”

She grinned, sudden and vicious. “HEY TINY! SPARKY SAYS TO RAISE YOUR PUNCHES!”

Aang yelped and almost fell over. Zuko and Toph both laughed.

“I forgot to expect Toph’s voice!” he complained, even as he kept going through the form with higher punches. “I’m not supposed to hear her voice when I’m firebending!”

Zuko cradled his latest cup of cinder sage tea in both hands, letting the warmth seep in, inhaling the steam slowly and letting it settle in his lungs, listening to Toph heckle Aang. His lungs felt a little drier – not by much, but better than when he woke up. He felt warm more from the sun than the fever, although his joints still ached and his skin still prickled. Toph cheered wildly, way beyond proportion, when Aang finished the form, and Zuko snickered at her over-the-top enthusiasm.

Yeah, coral fever sucked. But like a lot of things, it sucked less with friends.