They left the boy they’d briefly allied with hovering over his Uncle’s unconscious body, and Toph hated it.
Hated that they were leaving.
Hated that they had fought.
Hated that the nice man she’d had tea with might not survive, that his nephew’s heart had been throbbing with fear when he’d shot fire at them. That the boy had been too thin, too afraid, too small to fit the heat of his flames or the rasp of his voice.
Hated that she was too exhausted to think properly.
“Who was the girl?” She asked quietly.
Katara looked up from where her face had been buried in Sokka’s shoulder.
“Azula,” she whispered back.
Aang was fast asleep, curled around Momo on the far side of the saddle.
“Like... the princess of the Fire Nation?” Toph felt her hands shake.
“Yeah,” Sokka nodded slowly. She felt him reach an arm around Katara and pull her a little closer.
“That means... the boy... and the old man?”
“Prince Zuko,” Katara spat. “And General Iroh.”
Toph felt her heart skip a beat.
She had heard a million stories about the Dragon of the West. The one who had tried for years to destroy her capital city.
And he was just an old man who missed his nephew.
“Zuko’s been following us ever since Aang came out of the ice,” Sokka shook his head.
“Poor guy,” Toph crossed her arms tight over her chest, remembering the whispers of the lost child.
“Poor guy?” Katara squealed. “Spirits, Toph, what is that supposed to mean? He’s awful!”
“Yeah, he’s trying to kidnap Aang and take him back to his dad to be executed or something. He’s the worst!”
Toph let her mouth fall open in shock.
“Yeah! Angry freak’s been hounding us for months, showing up everywhere we go and burning stuff down!” Sokka’s grip tightened on Katara.
“But... he’s Prince Zuko...” Toph frowned.
“Exactly!” Sokka’s voice went high.
“He’s not even part of the Fire Nation anymore.”
“What do you mean, he’s not part of the Fire Nation?” Katara snapped. “He’s the Fire Lord’s son!”
Toph frowned harder. Didn’t they know?
“He’s been banished for years, though,” she crossed her arms tighter around her chest. The stories had given her nightmares for weeks. She wasn’t supposed to be listening, but she’d snuck into the dining room by shifting the wall just a tiny bit, and she’d heard.
“Banished?” Katara sat up from Sokka’s side, and he let her go easily.
“Yeah. Don’t... don’t you guys know?”
Everyone knew, Toph had thought. Every Earth Kingdom kid knew the story.
“Know what, Toph?” Sokka sounded exasperated. Exhausted.
“We... we got word one day, from Ba Sing Se,” she whispered. “That... that the Fire Lord was worse than his father had been. Scarier than the Dragon of the West.”
“The old man who’s always with Zuko? He’s harmless.” Katara dismissed.
“No, he’s not,” Toph snapped. “He led a massive siege against Ba Sing Se, for almost two years. Everyone was terrified. No one could get in or out of the city, and soldiers died on the wall every day. And when Fire Lord Azulon died, everyone was terrified that General Iroh would be the next Fire Lord. So we were all... I heard whispers, that people were glad his younger brother usurped him. Glad that a younger guy, with no battle experience, who’d spent his entire life sitting around the palace, was going to be in charge.”
“That worked out well,” Sokka snarked. Toph threw a dirty look in his general direction.
“It was... not better, but there was less fighting, for a little while. Fire Lord Ozai didn’t reinstate the siege on Ba Sing Se, and the battles moved out into open fields instead of where all the civilians were hanging around.”
“If this is some kind of pro-Ozai story, I don’t want to hear it,” Katara snapped.
“Pro-Ozai?” She sneered, “no one in the Earth Kingdom is pro-Ozai, Katara!”
“You just said the war was better under him!” Sokka objected.
“I didn’t! I just said he wasn’t attacking cities! And I’m not done!”
“Fine!” Sokka leaned back into the saddle. “Fine, tell us then.”
“I... I remember hearing about it,” Toph bit her lip. “I don’t... I don’t know how it is in the Water Tribes, but in the Fire Nation it’s... it’s one of the worst things you can do. Hurt a child.”
“You’re joking,” Sokka laughed, “they’re all about hurting children.”
Toph shook her head.
“In war, maybe. But... I mean more like... like a parent hitting their child. When the Earth Kingdom outlawed hitting kids in schools, we were decades behind the Fire Nation. We still only have rules that mean you can’t leave bruises. As long as you don’t cause any damage, you can hit your kid all you like.”
“That’s awful,” Katara’s voice wobbled.
“It’s not like that in the Fire Nation. They have all kinds of rules about their kids. They have to be eighteen to get married. They have to go to school until they’re eighteen, too, it’s only fourteen in the Earth Kingdom. And you’re not allowed to hit kids, not ever. They... my father said it’s because they think their kids are the ones who’ll grow up to be in charge of the whole world, so they don’t want to risk them getting hurt.”
“That’s...” Sokka tapped his hand against the rim of the saddle, “surprisingly civilized, I guess.”
“Which is why it was such a huge deal,” Toph took a deep breath, “when the Fire Lord burned off half his kid’s face.”
There was a moment of absolute silence.
“W-what?” Katara breathed. “His... his father gave him that scar?”
Toph nodded slowly.
“In front of the entire Fire Nation court. All the generals, and the advisors, and the nobles. Everyone was summoned to the Agni Kai grounds to watch a fight, but no one knew the Prince was participating, not until they saw him come in. They’re... they’re not allowed to let kids fight in an Agni Kai, it’s illegal to do it before you’re eighteen.”
“An Agni Kai?” Sokka asked quietly.
“Fire bending duel,” Toph shrugged, “to settle disputes of honor.”
She felt the siblings looking at each other.
“He... he fought one?” Sokka’s fingers were tapping quickly against the saddle, and Toph tried to drown out the sound.
“When he was thirteen,” she said quietly, nodding. Katara took in a sharp breath. “And no one could stop it. Because the Fire Lord was the one fighting him.”
“That’s... that’s so gross...” Katara said weakly.
“Prince Zuko didn’t fight,” Toph whispered. She remembered the first time she’d heard the story. The shocked whispers in the dining room as everyone listened to her uncle from the colonies tell it in horrified tones. “The Fire Lord had him on his knees, begging, and then he scorched off one side of his face and left him on the floor.”
The silence was deafening.
“Then what?” Katara breathed, like she was torn between wanting to hear the end and wishing she’d never heard it at all.
“He was banished. Apparently he... he got loaded onto this shitty little boat and sent out of Fire Nation waters before he even woke up.”
“That’s... that’s awful...” Sokka gulped.
“No one’s really seen him since,” Toph bit her lip. “There was an official proclamation from the palace, that he was being sent on a quest to find the Avatar as reparations for his display of cowardice and disrespect. That he would return to the palace and have his honor restored if he captured the Avatar.”
“But... this was when he was thirteen?” Sokka’s entire body retreated in on itself, his feet curling up under his butt. “He’s gotta be older than me. Aang only came out of the ice a couple of months ago...”
“Good way to get rid of a son you didn’t want,” Toph’s voice cracked, and Katara let out a little huffing moan that could have been pitying.
“Even the Earth Kingdom people, the people who’d come to my parents’ house for dinner, thought it was sick,” she bowed her head. “I can’t imagine what the Fire Nation thought. And then we knew that... that Ozai was worse than Iroh would have been. Everyone’s been fighting this war forever. What Iroh did wasn’t special, or any more evil than anyone else. But Ozai? What hope does the rest of the world have if he could do that to his son?”
Katara wiped her hand across her face.
“If we come across them again,” Toph whispered, “Prince Zuko and General Iroh, I don’t think we should fight them. I think... I don’t want to fight him.”
Katara curled up against Sokka again, and Toph could feel the strings of exhaustion pulling them all down.
“We can’t let him have Aang, Toph,” Sokka said gently.
“No,” she agreed, knowing he didn’t mean it the same way, “I wouldn’t want Prince Zuko going back to his father either.”