The shoulder bag dropped onto the floor. Silence surrounded Zuko as he threw himself onto the bed with a grunt. He understood why Katara was so angry. After spending the better of two years hunting them, the one time someone believed in him he failed them. He failed Uncle. He failed Katara. He failed himself. Toph was probably one of the only people that he hadn’t personally disappointed. Then as he finally chooses to change sides, he burned her. The firebender groaned and threw an arm over his eyes.
“I’m such an idiot.” Normally his quick reflexes save his life but this time they’ve caused his destruction. Zuko needed this group to trust him. With his cruel family and three nations that hate him, this little rag tag group is all he’s got. Even though he had apologized, guilt still twisted inside of him. Toph hadn’t done anything to deserve being burned. He sat up, crossed his legs, and leaned a cheek against his fist. If only there was something he could do. The banished prince lifted up his head and amber eyes traveled over to the bedside table. Zuko reached out and picked up the small potted plant he had placed beside the picture of Uncle.
It wasn’t much but maybe there was something he could do for her.
Zuko got to his feet and walked outside. Wind was breezing through the columns of the Western Air Temple, ruffling his hair, and the sun was dropping below the horizon. Sitting on the edge of the fountain was Toph, soaking her feet in the water. He walked over, stopping a few feet away.
“Toph,” he said, letting the blind earthbender know he was there. The young girl turned her face in his direction. “What are you doing out here?” Zuko had figured Sokka would have taken her to her room by now. With her feet injured, she wouldn’t be able to get back by herself. Toph rolled her eyes and scoffed.
“Like I want to be carried around everywhere,” she said. “I told Sokka to just set me down here.” Leaning back on her hands, Toph absentmindedly kicked her feet around in the water.
“But…if something were to happen…” Zuko trailed off, sitting down next to her. The moment he started to say it he knew it was the wrong thing to say, because the blind girl whipped her head around to glare at him.
“I’m not helpless,” she growled.
“I didn’t mean–” he started.
“Didn’t what? Didn’t mean to pity the blind girl?”
“No! I just meant that–”
“You just don’t get it!” Toph yelled. “What am I supposed to do until my feet are healed? Huh! I can’t see, I can’t walk, I can’t even…” she trailed off. She blinked away a tear, gritting her teeth as she looked away. “Just forget it.”
Zuko frowned and stared down at the plant he held. He sighed.
“You know, I had trouble doing normal stuff after my face was burned,” he stated. “In fact there wasn’t a whole lot I could do.” His eyes shifted to watch her out of the side of his eye. The sun had nearly completely set, shrouding the pair in a thin layer of darkness.
Several moments passed in silence before a small, shaking voice asked, “Really?” Zuko nodded before replying, “Really.”
It wasn’t a story he had ever told someone, and to be honest he had never wanted to. Those days he had felt weak. Helpless. He glanced down to stare at the water.
“After the duel with my father, the entire left side of my face had to be bandaged. Without my other eye, I was at a disadvantage during training. If I didn’t keep my opponent to my right, then I wouldn’t be able to defend or attack properly. To add to the trouble, I also lost my sense of depth perception. I grew skittish. Worried about how easy someone could appear on my left to disarm me. My uncle noticed that I began to hug the left walls, pausing to scan the area around me whenever I heard a sound. If my own father could burn me like this, then why would I expect to be safe from anyone else?” The banished prince was shaking, angry tears slipping down his cheeks. He swiped an arm across his eyes, even though he knew the blind girl couldn’t see him. Couldn’t see his moment of weakness.
A small hand groped around in the air before finding and grabbing onto his arm.
“It’s okay. I understand,” she muttered. “At least your eye got better, right?”
“Not exactly.” It was weeks before the bandage over his face could be permanently removed. Weeks of being half blind, failed depth perception, and the headaches that came along with it. Funny enough, it was at this very air temple that the bandage was taken off. However, it was obvious that his sight was never going to be the same. Although he regained most of it, the damage the burn caused meant his left eye couldn’t fully open. Zuko lost part of his left peripheral version and even some of the upper and lower boundaries of his left vision were tinged with black. Uncle trained him ruthlessly and constantly to ensure that Zuko would be still be able to fight as well as any other soldier. As he explained all of this, he felt the grip on his sleeve grow tighter. “My uncle did a lot for me back then. He even insisted on changing the bandage and reapplying the salve himself.”
A crooked smile worked its way on his lips, even though tears were still being shed.
“Your uncle really was a great guy,” Toph said softly. “Made great tea, too,” she added, hoping to lighten the mood. Zuko chuckled and sniffled, wiping his eyes dry.
“Yeah. I miss him.”
“You’ll see him again. Trust me. I know these things.”
Zuko turned to face Toph. She was grinning and he couldn’t help but smile as well.
“So what was that salve you mentioned? I mean it makes sense, I guess. I doubt even Fire Nation royalty had magic waterbending healers.”
“You’re right. We had a medicine from a plant called aloe vera. It usually grows in deserts, but our healers managed to cultivate it within the palace.” Zuko laughed nervously. “It’s, uh, actually why I came out here. When I left the palace to come here, I brought a pot of it with me. It…reminds me of my uncle,” he admitted.
“Zuko,” Toph started, turning towards him. “That’s really sweet of you.” She punched his arm. “You couldn’t have started this conversation with that? Maybe, ‘Hey Toph, I’ve got a magic plant that will help your burned feet’?” she mocked. His golden eyes widened in surprised.
“Well I…I mean…” He stopped when he noticed the soft smile she had.
“Where is it?” she asked. Zuko hesitated only a moment before he grabbed the hand she had on his arm and slowly moved it to the long thick leaves of aloe. Toph gingerly felt the smooth leaves, dragging her fingers along the white teeth on the sides. “It feels so weird,” she laughed. Toph pulled her feet out of the water and twisted her body to face Zuko. “So how does this work?”
The firebender’s face flushed a bit as he placed the potted plant on his side opposite Toph. Without answering, Zuko picked up her feet and placed them in his lap.
He took one of the aloe leaves and broke it, squeezing the gel inside onto the bottom of her feet. Her feet flinched away slightly at the cool, slimy feeling but stilled as Zuko continued to rub the aloe along the soles of her feet.
“Uncle would do this for me all the time. Every day and every night without fail. Even after I would get angry with him.” Zuko was constantly angry at Uncle during that time. Uncle, who was so understanding and so patient only served to irritate the prince. Reminding him of the help that he needed but didn’t want. Reminding him of his helplessness. He slowly released his breath, turning his focus on the earthbender’s feet. He quickly became so lost in thought that he didn’t recognize Toph’s hand until it was right in front of his face. There was a hesitation before she gently touched her fingers to his forehead. Holding back his confusion, Zuko allowed her curious fingers to traverse his face. They slid along the bridge of his nose, moving over to the right side to feel smooth skin. Then her fingertips switched sides in order to feel along his burned flesh, going all the way to the ear and back to trace his eye.
Blind eyes narrowed in thought.
“Does it ever hurt?” she asked, spreading her fingers until her small hand covered the left side of his face.
“The memory does,” he replied.
The two benders stayed like that, Zuko rubbing her feet long after the salve was applied and Toph holding her hand to his burnt cheek. All was silent except for the occasional croaking badgerfrog. This was as peaceful as Zuko has felt in awhile, but he knew it couldn’t last. Especially when the blind girl started to bite back a yawn. His hands stilled and his lips quirked up in a small smile.
He offered to take her back to her room. Zuko wasn’t sure if he was surprised or not that she agreed. The firebender stood up, having the young girl grab the aloe pot before he picked her up into his arms. As he carried her, Toph kept one hand on the plant while the other crawled back up to touch his burn. Once they arrived as her room, Zuko placed her down on her bed.
“Why don’t you keep it,” he said after a moment of deliberation. Toph glanced down at the pot as if she could see it before laughing.
“Nah. Just bring me some more tomorrow. My feet are your responsibility now,” she said with a smirk.
The fire prince smirked a little himself.
“Alright.” He started to walk away, pausing only when he heard a light whisper.
“Good night, Sparky.” When he looked back Toph was already on her side facing away from him.
The walk back to his room was silent and dark. Zuko placed the aloe on the table and picked up the picture of Uncle. He smiled softly and whispered, “Thanks, Uncle,” before setting the framed portrait back down. As exhaustion made his shoulders heavy, he laid down on his bed and patiently waited for sleep to claim him.