They may have said that they accepted him into the group, but Zuko still didn’t feel welcome. It had only been a few hours ago that the Avatar and his companions had grudgingly allowed him to stay, and now it was dinnertime. He had offered to help start the cooking fire, but the water tribe peasant—Sokka, Zuko reminded himself—had shot him a dirty look that clearly said “buzz off” and resolutely used his spark-rocks to light it, never mind that it took five tries to catch and another several minutes to grow to a decent size, and Zuko could have had it ready to cook over in one strike.
So it was that everyone was sitting around the campfire eating their respective dinners and no one said a word to the firebender. Katara was hunkered down as far from him as possible and completely avoiding acknowledging him, while her brother was doing almost as good a job as she was. The Avatar—er, Aang—looked like he was about to break the silence several times, judging by the way his face lit up, but he shut down before saying anything every time, as if realizing that his conversation starter was no good. Even the other kids that Zuko didn’t recognize—he was really bad at remembering names, but for the sake of his future, he was trying to commit them to memory—were keeping their distance and taking the others’ lead in not talking to him.
Somehow, though, even though she had every reason to hate him, the blind earthbender girl had wound up sitting next to him. Admittedly, she had been the only one who wanted to give him a chance originally, and had even come to seek him out last night. Was it possible that she had already forgiven him for firebending at her, for burning her feet? Surely not… Maybe she just didn’t know it was him sitting next to her? But she had been able to recognize him before… Zuko made up his mind that he should talk to her, thank her for speaking up for him, let her know that he was grateful for her acceptance, and maybe apologize again for burning her feet. After all, she was probably his best chance at getting one of them to like him.
He cleared his throat. “Uhh… Sorry again for burning your feet.” Her ear twitched toward the direction of his voice, and she scoffed under her breath. Everyone else froze in the middle of their meal. Zuko waited for her to say something, but got no other reaction. He tried again for a response, “I’m sure they’ll heal soon. I know it hurts now, but…at least it won’t be permanent…like mine.” He gestured offhandedly to his face, wondering why in the world he would bring that up. He didn’t want to talk about his past failures in front of these people!
The earthbender turned in his direction, surprise written on her features. “Your what?” she asked with genuine curiosity, completely unaware of what he was referring to.
Before Zuko could formulate a response, the water tribe boy blurted out in surprise, “What, are you kidding?! He’s got a giant scar across half of his face! How could you not see that, it’s…” His voice trailed off as he realized his mistake.
Toph’s face snapped towards him with a glare—Zuko was proud that her name finally came back to him—and her voice was raised in the promise of an angry hissy-fit. “How could I not see what? Anything? I don’t know what ANY of you ‘look’ like, in case you didn’t know that, Mister Genius-Plan-Guy.” Her arms gestured wildly as she spoke and Zuko was briefly worried that she would accidentally earthbend something important, but she seemed to have separated her temper from her bending—for the time being.
“Now, now, Toph, don’t get mad at Sokka,” the boy’s sister chided kindly, “it’s just…” she faltered for words, gesturing vaguely… “really obvious.” And even though she was referring to him, Zuko still noted that she refused to even glance in his direction. It irritated him.
“It’s okay, Toph, it’s not your fault. It’s just one of those things that no one likes to talk about,” the former prince added mildly, addressing it partway to Katara so she would have to acknowledge him. Under his breath he added, “least of all me,” and judging by the twitch in her ears, the blind girl heard that, too.
“Uh-huuuh,” the earthbender replied sarcastically. “Just some little trivial detail that isn’t worth mentioning to the blind girl. He’s got a ‘giant scar across half his face’ and when I ask for a description of the guy that was chasing you, the best you can come up with is ‘angry ponytail guy’???” Clearly, the little earthbender was still mad at Sokka. Was that honestly all the other boy had had to say about him?
This time, Sokka sprung to his own defense. “Well I didn’t think it would become an issue! I thought we’d ditched him at the North Pole! And besides, you always seem to know everything without me having to tell you anyway!”
Zuko interrupted whatever increasingly angry comeback was on the girl’s lips, trying to defuse the situation by casually pointing out, “heh heh, I don’t even have a ponytail anymore.”
“Wonderful,” Toph yelled, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “He doesn’t even have a ponytail anymore, so I’m completely wrong in my description of him! Is there anything else I’m so obviously missing about anyone??”
“I have Airbender tattoos,” Aang pointed out helpfully.
The angry female just rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard about that one, you dum-dum.” She huffed and crossed her arms, looking like she was done yelling but not done sulking.
Zuko felt a little bad that it was his comment that started all this, and he really hadn’t wanted to make her upset. Even if she seemed to be mostly angry at Sokka, Zuko had only wanted to make her feel better about things—and most particularly about letting him into their group. He took a deep fortifying breath and moved over to kneel in front of her.
“Toph?” The prince laid his fingers gently on her wrist. She tensed for a moment, obviously preferring to sulk on her own, but she made a visible effort to relax at his gentle tone and loosened her crossed arms just a bit. She was giving him a chance, so he took it.
Loosely taking hold of each of her wrists, he slowly guided her hands toward his face. With another deep fortifying breath, he reminded himself that he was going to have to open up a little bit and trust these people if he ever expected them to trust him in return. And with that, he brought her fingers up to either side of his jaw and focused on her childishly innocent face, trying to ignore the gawking silence of the others behind him.
Realizing what he was offering, Toph let her hands skim across his face. First together, over his mouth—which he kept in a passive straight line—and then back over his cheeks, up towards his cheekbones… when her fingertips came to the edge of his scar, she gave a little gasp. Her hand on the left side of his face moved quickly then, investigating the full reach of the hardened swath of burned skin. “This…” she began haltingly, “this was done with firebending?”
Zuko nodded slowly, knowing that for once she could actually detect the gesture.
Her hands continued to move over his face, comparing the unblemished right side to his disfigured left. Zuko remembered his vow from barely a minute ago, that if he wanted them to accept him, he would have to share things about his past. He picked something simple, something that he thought perhaps the blind earthbender could relate to. “For months afterwards, I couldn’t see or hear anything at all on my left side. It was frustrating, losing half my senses,” he murmured.
“Yes, it would be,” she replied quietly. Satisfied with her exploration of his visage, she dropped her hands to her lap.
Zuko withdrew quickly from her personal space, going back to his seat and picking up his bowl of half-eaten food again. Still addressing his meal, he mumbled his reassurance, “but your injury isn’t that bad. Plus you’ve got Katara for healing. You’ll recover soon.” The moody prince concentrated only on devouring his food, desperately hoping that the conversation would be over and he wouldn’t have to answer any of the endless questions that the curious kids were sure to have. Luckily, his hunched-up posture told the rest of the group as much, and they didn’t pry, instead silently returning to their own meals.
“…Thank you.” Toph spoke quietly. For what exactly, Zuko couldn’t be sure, but somehow, it was enough.